* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Improving access to justice is a high priority in Canada; the need for pro bono services is created by the high cost of legal services and dramatic reductions in publicly funded legal aid programmes. In 1998, the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) passed a resolution codifying the long standing commitment of the profession to pro bono services. The CBA noted that it was the professional responsibility of lawyers to contribute their time to pro bono initiatives, and cited that members should strive to contribute 50 hours or 3 percent of billings per year on a pro bono basis.
In 2012 Pro Bono Canada was founded to support the development of and expand province-wide pro bono programmes. Prior to that, pro bono services were, and still are, available at the provincial or territorial level, and offer extensive services to members of the community. For example, Pro Bono Ontario (PBO) administers three main programmes: Law Help Ontario, which assists clients with civil, non-family, disputes; Volunteer Lawyers Service, which advises charitable organisations with corporate law issues; and the Child Advocacy Project, which provides advice in the education sector. There are several other projects offered by PBO, including the Justice for Children and Youth project, which provides legal services to people under the age of 18. Recently, PBO established a Corporate Law Clinic, to offer clients advice on a variety of corporate matters. Pro Bono Nova Scotia also offers a clinic for refugees in Halifax, and “reachAbility” provides referrals for pro bono services to people living with disabilities. In Nunavut, the Aboriginal Court Worker Program provides assistance to First Nations persons who require guidance navigating the justice system.
The tradition of providing legal assistance begins at law schools in Canada. Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC) has a chapter in every law school across the country, and each year approximately 1,600 law students provide volunteer services of approximately 140,000 hours to pro bono initiatives. PBSC clients can obtain advice on civil, family, estates and criminal matters, as well as assistance with not-for-profit corporate law matters and representation at various levels of court.
Many firms in Canada support pro bono through their lawyers who volunteer their time, and several firms have adopted a formal policy that treats time spent on pro bono services as equivalent to billable hours. Several firms partner with the provincial pro bono organisations on special projects, including a not-for-profit corporate clinic that connects immigrant entrepreneurs with commercial lawyers; the 160 Girls Project which provides research and litigation support to the initiative seeking to compel the enforcement of existing sexual assault laws in Kenya, Ghana and Malawi; Ronald McDonald House provides a home away from home for seriously ill children and their families; and Parkinson's Society of British Columbia provides advice to individuals with Parkinson’s and develops resources to make people aware of the legal rights of individuals with Parkinson’s, including fighting discrimination in the workplace and barriers to public services or facilities. Many large corporations, including the Royal Bank of Canada, Imperial Oil and John Deere, have dedicated their legal staff to pro bono initiatives and in house lawyers volunteer and appear at various level of court on behalf of pro bono clients. In 2012, the Association of Corporate Counsel Ontario and PBO launched the Adoptions Project, where lawyers help proposed parents and foster children formalize the adoption process.
Pro Bono continues to grow and flourish in Canada as a result of the dedication of the profession to access to justice and the lawyers and students who commit their time to this important cause.