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Sustainable equal justice

Pro bono is one of many solutions to improving access to justice.

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We read with interest Jamie Maclaren’s article “Increasing Access to Justice is Not a Zero-Sum Game” and particularly his comments on the Canadian Bar Association Access to Justice Committee’s recent summary report entitled, Reaching Equal Justice: An Invitation to Envision and Act. 

In his article, Mr. Maclaren asserts that the Committee looks upon “pro bono with coolness” as a solution to facilitating access to justice. 

We simply don’t see it that way at all.

Quite to the contrary, we agree wholeheartedly with his view that “It is high time that legal aid and pro bono are seen as mutually supportive systems” and we anticipate working together in implementing the targets expressed in the report, keeping sight of that objective.

What’s important to bear in mind is that our vision of moving toward equal justice is premised on a sustainable system that ensures that all people who have essential legal needs, especially those who already experience marginalization in their lives, get the support they require. 

We do not suggest, until that time comes, that lawyers sit on their hands, waiting for government to act.  Both the summary report and the full report (to be released this week) express the same view as Mr. Maclaren  – pro bono provides a “nimble” way for lawyers to facilitate access to justice right now and into the future.  This quality makes pro bono well-suited to adapt to a changing profession and legal aid landscape. If a reader takes the impression from the summary report that the Access to Justice Committee does not value the contributions of members of the profession providing pro bono legal services, we welcome the opportunity to dispel that impression.  While the report refers to different perspectives we heard during our consultation process, we share Mr. Maclaren’s view that “Pro bono is a good thing”. 

The proposed targets do encourage dialogue as to how to achieve a system in which essential legal services are publicly funded, rather than “volunteer funded”, to a greater extent over time.  In addition to an enhanced and expanded system of publicly funded legal aid particularly for essential legal services, we also call for more creative and comprehensive public and private delivery of legal services, including pro bono services, that would ensure all Canadians have better access to legal services regardless of their income. 

Still, despite the laudable pro bono efforts of the profession to supplement services available through our legal-aid plans in Canada, equal justice is not the current reality.  The report is a call to action for lawyers to do what they can to rectify this situation, including through providing pro bono services, to facilitate access to justice.  While we know that pro bono work is not a substitute for adequate government funding of legal aid, the CBA has called on each member of the legal profession to strive to contribute 50 hours or three percent of billings per year on a pro bono basis.  In 2003, the CBA passed resolutions to urge lawyers to meet that goal, and created a Pro Bono Standing Committee.  The value the Access to Justice Committee also places on pro bono work is evident by its target that by 2020, all lawyers volunteer legal services at some point in their career. 

Following the release of the full report, now available online, we look forward to productive discussions within the legal community about the report’s 31 proposed targets.  The report is “designed to engage, rather than dictate or provide ‘the answer’” and we are pleased that Mr. Maclaren has taken up the Committee’s invitation and tackled some of the important issues we raised. 

The Committee looks forward to an on-going conversation with Access Pro Bono and other pro bono service providers once our final report is released and as the justice community continues to work together to achieve equal justice.