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Report suggests little understanding of what constitutes pro bono legal services

11 March 2020

A University of Otago report says the results of a study suggests there is little shared understanding by the legal profession of what constitutes pro bono legal services.

The report: New Zealand Lawyers, pro bono, and access to justice was co-authored by Kayla Stewart, Bridgette Toy-Cronin and Louisa Choe from the Legal Issues Centre.

It summarises the results of a study about the provision of pro bono legal services by lawyers in New Zealand.

Surveys 360 lawyers

The study was carried out between September 2018 and February 2019. It was part of a wider project about free and low-cost services offered by lawyers. The first part of the study included a survey of the profession, which 360 lawyers completed. This survey included questions about how lawyers define pro bono, how much pro bono work they perform and for which clients, and whether they regard providing pro bono legal services as a professional obligation. The second part involved interviews with 23 lawyers to gain more detailed information about attitudes to pro bono work and how pro bono services work in New Zealand.

The results of the study suggest that there is little shared understanding of what constitutes pro bono legal services.

“This is a significant impediment to any discussion about pro bono legal services, the amount of provision, who is providing the services, and the design of policy to encourage the provision of more pro bono services,” the report says.

Some lawyers consider legal aid work a form of pro bono

The study also points to the underfunding of legal aid as reason for some lawyers to either consider legal aid as a form of pro bono or that lawyers are offering pro bono to supplement legal aid.

“This is problematic in that pro bono legal services – which should be directed at those who do not qualify for legal aid but cannot afford a private lawyer – are being offered to litigants who qualify for legal aid,” the report says.

The report says that if New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aoteaora introduced and implemented a 35 hours per annum target for pro bono work by lawyers, most lawyers would not be able to reach this aspirational target. It says while 41% of lawyers exceed that target, over 25% of lawyers are doing no pro bono work and the remainder of lawyers are doing less than the 35 hours target.

Ten recommendations to improve pro bono

The University of Otago study makes ten recommendations focussed on three key themes:

(1) That the profession develops a shared definition of pro bono, focussed on pro bono that enhances access to justice, and that this definition be the basis for all programmes, targets and incentives for carrying out pro bono.

(2) That a national clearinghouse for pro bono be introduced to minimise the administrative burden on lawyers providing pro bono and more equitably distribute pro bono services among the public.

(3) That the legal profession associations encourage an increase in the amount of pro bono service via several mechanisms including regulatory reform and the introduction of an aspirational target.

Last updated on the 11th March 2020