Pro Bono in Colombia: Life from the Trenches

by Catalina Brando, Baker & McKenzie S.A.S. | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 22 May 2015 15:02 GMT

REUTERS/Jorge Silva

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The priorities of pro bono work in Colombia are highly impacted by the urgency of solving primal issues and necessities. As a firm, our preference for pro bono would be to execute high impact projects and strategic litigation. However, the needs of individuals who are seeking a lawyer and access to the legal system to secure the most basic of human necessities are so overwhelming, that they usually take precedence. Thus, before attempting to alter public policy, we find ourselves helping people to become aware of their fundamental rights and demanding respect for such rights from  the State .

Individual cases range from criminal defense to demanding admission to the healthcare system to claiming alimony and to defending labor and pension-related rights. Doing pro bono work in Colombia turns into a creative duty, solving practical obstacles that result from the difficult circumstances suffered by each client. To illustrate, starting a pro bono case may go as follows:

As the assigned lawyer, you call the phone number registered by the client. Someone answers a phone (that is usually shared by several neighbors) to indicate she (most individual clients are women) is not there and you should call later. You call later to schedule the first meeting and find out that she works two full time shifts and cannot meet you during office hours, can you meet on Sunday?

Commuting to meet her is not a reasonable option either. Travel time from your office to meet most clients at their house or place of work may take several hours (each way) and chances are, the neighborhood you arrive in is completely unsafe.

Because an actual meeting anytime soon seems difficult, and the matter is urgent, you decide to continue the interview on the phone and request a brief explanation on the case and some initial documents.

After your client details her husband left, she lives in single with her mom, her brother (who does not help around the house), and her three kids, she will finally come to explain that her youngest child is sick and did not receive the specialized medical attention on time. His condition worsened. He has now been seen by a specialist and started therapy, but she has no time or money to take him to therapy. And that is not really the issue.

The issue is he needs a treatment she cannot afford and that should be covered by the universal health plan. The healthcare provider has refused to start treatment and has hinted, in no uncertain terms, that if she wants to receive treatment she will need to secure an order pursuant to a constitutional action for the protection of fundamental rights.

You explain the health provider is in breach of its legal obligation and you will file a constitutional action right away. You will just need basic documents to move forward, can she e-mail them? Email? She explains she does not have a computer, but she knows a place on her block where she can find one. She will ask someone to help her scan the documents this week. You explain she may also post a copy of the documents, but she refuses because she has not received her paycheck this month and cannot afford photocopies or postage.

After a few days, nothing has happened. Nothing in your email, nothing in the post. You try contacting her again but no one has heard from her in several days. Suddenly, without previous notice, she appears in your office with the documents urging you to file the constitutional action ASAP.

You manage to file the constitutional action by next morning. Assuming, among others, that you do not have to fight for the court to assume jurisdiction, that the court does not require any additional documents and that the healthcare provider does not challenge the first instance ruling, then, the healthcare provider could be delivering the required treatment about one month after the filing.

When these are the needs and conditions Colombian people are exposed to, foregoing high impact projects and strategic litigation seems a small price to pay.

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