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  • Writer's pictureInternational Lawyers Project

Understanding the Role of Pro Bono Lawyers in Securing Access to Justice

By Ivy Mburu 


Royal Courts of Justice, London.

Within the legal advocacy landscape, pro bono lawyers are often unsung heroes, bridging the gap between justice and those who are denied it.  Free legal advice is particularly important given the barriers that many face in accessing justice, which can include economic, social, geographic, and procedural factors, such as the inability to afford legal representation, discrimination based on gender or race, limited access to legal resources in certain regions, and complex legal processes that may be challenging for individuals to navigate. 


According to Margaret Satterthwaite, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, there is a need to “reimagine access to justice.” She advocates that the rule of law should be viewed from the perspective of individuals worldwide who bear the burdens of inequality, systematic discrimination, and persistent marginalisation. In aligning with this perspective, pro bono lawyers emerge as crucial facilitators in breaking down barriers to justice. They play a transformative role in enabling access to justice for various marginalised groups, including indigenous communities, by addressing legal challenges unique to their cultural contexts. Additionally, pro bono services extend support to LGBTQIA+ individuals facing discrimination, people with disabilities navigating accessibility issues, and those dealing with mental health or substance abuse concerns, among others.  


What is pro bono? 


Derived from the Latin phrase “pro bono publico,” meaning “for the public good,” pro bono legal services involve legal professionals voluntarily offering their expertise and services without charging fees to individuals or groups who face financial constraints and may otherwise struggle to secure legal representation. International Lawyers Project (ILP) exemplifies this commitment, dedicated to using the law for economic and environmental justice globally, with active projects in more than 80 countries.  


The roots of modern pro bono commitment trace back to Ancient Athens, evolving through Ancient Rome to the Middle Ages, where pro bono frameworks were initially led by church officials and later transitioned to being spearheaded by lawyers. Over time, pro bono work gained prominence in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, becoming a cornerstone of legal practice.  


Today, this dedication thrives with pro bono departments in law firms, barristers' chambers, law school clinics, law centres, and non-profits like ILP, providing free legal assistance to those who most need it. Lawyers and students now voluntarily contribute their time to pro bono cases, reflecting a departure from traditional billable-hour models and showcasing a selfless commitment to addressing societal inequalities. This historical evolution underscores a contemporary ethos that places community service at the heart of legal practice. 


In unravelling the layers of this aspect of legal practice, we must explore the motivations, impact, and challenges faced by pro bono lawyers as they dedicate their time and expertise to championing the cause of justice for all.  


At the core of ensuring access to justice, is the right to a fair trial – a fundamental right embedded in the principle of the rule of law. A quick look at international covenants such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), among others, as well as domestic legal frameworks around the world, confirms this. This right ensures that every individual facing legal proceedings is entitled to impartiality, transparency, and due process, and serves as a safeguard against arbitrary or unjust treatment.  


However, the reality often paints a different picture, as many people face barriers that make it difficult for them to pursue legal action. The cost implications linked to legal proceedings frequently pose a formidable barrier, rendering it challenging for individuals across various income levels, including the middle class, to engage the court system for anything beyond routine matters. Despite these financial hurdles, the principle remains steadfast: every individual, irrespective of their background and financial standing, holds the right to equitable access to justice. The challenge lies in reconciling the ideal of universal access with the practical constraints imposed by the high expenses associated with legal processes, which disproportionately impact people from disadvantaged backgrounds. This underscores the pressing need to address systemic barriers, ensuring that the pursuit of justice remains inclusive and accessible to all, regardless of economic means.  


How does ILP help? 


The commitment to pro bono is characterised in ILP’s projects and approach, where volunteer lawyers actively contribute to the welfare of marginalised communities globally. ILP’s strategic intervention in the areas of Governance and Accountability, Environment and Sustainable Development, Sustainable Finance, and Enabling Civic Space, aim to create a more inclusive and equitable legal system. 


For example, in 2022, ILP partnered with the Zambia Land Alliance (ZLA) to launch a legal services programme benefitting eight marginalised rural districts. Focused on dispute resolution, land arbitration, and legal advice on environmental rights, particularly in areas with mining operations, the partnership included training sessions for ZLA’s paralegals conducted by pro bono lawyers. The collaboration aimed to empower Zambian communities, enabling them to seek legal recourse for rights enforcement. A significant outcome of this initiative was a High Court ruling in 2022, where 13 villagers, evicted in 2013, obtained a verdict affirming the illegality of customary land conversion and addressing rights violations that resulted in displacement, breach of the community’s rights to life, freedom of movement and association, dignity, and equal protection of the law. With support from ZLA and Southern Africa Litigation Centre, the court ordered relief, emphasising the pivotal role of legal advocacy in protecting vulnerable communities’ rights. 


This case underscores ILP’s commitment to fostering equitable access to justice, serving as a bridge between financial constraints and the legal representation that individuals and groups require. It ensures that even those facing economic challenges have an opportunity to seek legal recourse and protection. 


For pro bono volunteers, including those associated with organisations like ILP, the work goes beyond financial remuneration. It serves as a unique source of professional fulfilment, contributing to a greater sense of purpose in their legal careers. According to Honourable Shirzad Ahmed, a judge of the Federal Court of Canada, "pro bono work is a learning opportunity, and thus a means of self-improvement." This motivation stems from the positive impacts on the lives of others, illustrating the broader influence of pro bono services on individual well-being and community welfare.  


Furthermore, the impact of pro bono work extends globally. Organisations like ILP exemplify the global reach of such efforts by providing legal expertise to civil society, communities, and governments. With a network of over 220 volunteers across 46 countries, ILP has provided support to numerous community groups, NGOs and governments around the world. In 2022 alone, ILP received over 105 partner requests and successfully undertook 98 projects, all addressing diverse needs globally. This work is instrumental in contributing to long-lasting change in some of the world’s most marginalised regions, emphasising the transformative potential of pro bono legal services. 


A review of ILP’s work since its inception in 2005 shows that pro bono work also involves capacity-building initiatives, such as training programmes, legal workshops, public awareness campaigns, and community legal literacy programs. These programmes empower diverse audiences, including local communities, government officials, staff from other non-profits, lawyers, and paralegals, among others. Consequently, these empowerment initiatives enable participants to independently navigate legal complexities and advocate for justice in various contexts. 


For instance, ILP has organised virtual workshops on Pillars 1 and 2 of the OECD Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Project in Tunisia, provided anti-corruption training in Kaduna State in Nigeria, conducted a virtual training workshop on the UK Global Anti-Corruption Sanctions regime for in-house lawyers from ten Transparency International Asia-Pacific Chapters, and assisted with in-person legal training of the Maasai and Ogiek communities in Kenya on their land and human rights. These examples are just a snapshot of the organisation's multi-faceted approach to supporting individuals and institutions through pro bono initiatives. 


ILP has adeptly tackled the hurdles of physical distance and limited connectivity through a dynamic mix of virtual and in-person workshops. While virtual sessions ensure flexibility and widen our reach, in-person workshops offer a rich, hands-on experience. They immerse us in the realities of grassroots communities, fostering deep connections and understanding. Crucially, these face-to-face interactions break down barriers for communities with limited internet access, ensuring inclusivity in our initiatives. This blended approach not only highlights ILP's adaptability and innovation but also underscores our commitment to meeting communities where they are. By embracing both digital and traditional methods, pro bono lawyers and organisations can amplify their impact, reaching diverse audiences while ensuring no one is left behind. 


The future of pro bono 


It is also important to note that the concept of access to justice cuts across various fields of law. While ILP focuses on the key programmatic themes identified above, numerous organisations engaging in pro bono work cover family law matters, immigration, consumer rights, debt issues, housing and homelessness, and criminal defence. This collective effort underscores the expansive nature of pro bono services, ensuring that access to justice is inclusive and addresses a wide array of legal needs within marginalised communities. 


In envisioning the future landscape of pro bono work, the emergence of specialised platforms connecting lawyers with individuals in need could play a significant role by streamlining and enhancing the accessibility of legal assistance. These platforms would not only facilitate efficient matching of lawyers’ expertise with specific cases but also create opportunities for collaboration, fostering a more efficient environment for pro bono work. 


Whilst pro bono work is a free legal aid tool, pro bono lawyers are still guided by a commitment to uphold the highest ethical standards, ensuring that their clients receive quality representation and advocacy. In light of this, pro bono lawyers ought to prioritise continuous professional development. At ILP, collaborations with stakeholders such as the Law Society of Zimbabwe have provided opportunities to provide comprehensive training equipping legal professionals with the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate evolving legal landscapes, ensuring their continuous growth and effectiveness in the pursuit of justice. 


Given the nature of the work, pro bono lawyers, while driven by a sense of purpose, may encounter various challenges in their efforts. Acknowledging and addressing these challenges is crucial for understanding the resilience displayed by pro bono practitioners. Through collaboration and networking with other legal aid practitioners, organisations, governments, the private sector and community to share resources, insights, and support enables them to collectively address challenges and enhance their impact.  


Despite global challenges including geopolitical tensions, widening inequality, and the looming threat of climate change, the 2022 Pro Bono Index, based on data from 245 law firms and over 100,000 lawyers worldwide, showcases the resilience of pro bono work. Legal professionals collectively dedicated 3.5 million hours to pro bono endeavours. These efforts addressed diverse issues from access to justice and sustainability to human rights advocacy, women's and LGBTQIA+ rights, and freedom of speech. Encouragingly, 89% of firms maintained pro bono practices, demonstrating a commitment to community well-being. Firms with dedicated pro bono infrastructure reported significantly higher pro bono hours, emphasising the positive impact of strategic investments in these initiatives. 


Law firms and legal institutions can establish policies that recognise and value pro bono work, providing institutional support and incentives for lawyers to engage in pro bono activities as well as establishing mentorship programs that pair experienced pro bono lawyers with those new to the practice to help in transferring knowledge and skills, and ensuring a supportive environment for pro bono practitioners. 


Reflecting on these findings, we extend an invitation to every reader to join this transformative journey, whether as a prospective pro bono advocate, a supporter of access to justice, or an advocate for policies enhancing legal representation. In this call to action, we emphasise that the pages of the pro bono story are not static; they await your contribution, your dedication, and your commitment to fostering a legal system where justice truly prevails for everyone. 


As the narrative of pro bono legal services resonates, we should all consider our roles as agents of positive change in the ongoing saga of access to justice — a privilege and an opportunity to contribute to a cause that truly matters. 


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