Pro Bono in Asia

Tuesday, 26 July 2016 09:12 GMT

REUTERS/Dadang Tri

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Pro bono in Asia has arrived.

Despite some regulatory restrictions on the delivery of pro bono legal services, varying standards of rule of law and shortages in legal aid, the pro bono culture in Asia is bourgeoning and more lawyers are seeking out such opportunities.

Without doubt, this success is the result of collective leadership, widespread interest and tireless commitment from local and foreign lawyers, in house counsel, law societies, bar associations, universities, students and civil society organisations throughout the region. 

Pro bono education at universities

Universities have played a critical role in teaching students about access to justice. Whether through classes in legal ethics, establishment of pro bono clinics or engaging students to provide direct legal services in local communities, teachers are nurturing and instilling a strong pro bono ethic amongst law students. Organisations such as BABSEA CLE, have also been instrumental in developing clinical legal education programs to support university staff and students, thereby creating the next generation of pro bono champions.  

Legal profession initiatives

Local bar associations and law societies have shown outstanding leadership in the creation of aspirational pro bono targets or mandatory requirements which have fostered the growth of access to justice work in Asia. Countries including Indonesia, Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam have already implemented such targets and other countries will likely follow. Last year Singapore implemented mandatory annual pro bono reporting obligations and took pro bono into account when assessing applications for senior counsel appointments. Thailand also recommended incentivising pro bono lawyers including through the creation of pro bono accolades and compulsory biennial access to justice training.

Changing cultures

With globalisation and the increasing movement of people, new cultures are connecting and ideas are being shared. Millennials, in particular, are more mobile than ever and bring global and innovative perspectives to solving social problems. As the next generation of lawyers, Millennials have also benefited from exposure to pro bono at universities and are now shifting the pro bono culture. They are introducing pro bono work to their firms, seeking out access to justice opportunities and driving social change. Firms are adapting to satisfy the interests of such lawyers and pro bono has new focus at senior levels. 

Increasing demand for pro bono opportunities

There is a growing awareness of the benefits of pro bono for communities and, as the pro bono culture shifts, enthusiasm and demand from lawyers and in house counsel has also increased. To satisfy this demand, firms must continue to work with local clearinghouses but also properly resource their offices to seek out access to justice opportunities and create a pipeline of high impact work. DLA Piper has recently appointed a full time pro bono lawyer in Hong Kong to achieve this and it is expected other firms will follow.

Local pro bono networks

Following the establishment of Hong Kong roundtables more than five years ago, pro bono roundtables have commenced in Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai. These meetings of foreign and local lawyers, in house counsel and clearinghouses provide a forum for practitioners to discuss challenges, share knowledge and build local pro bono networks.  In South Korea, the Foreign Law Firms Association is developing its network through arrangements with organisations such as Gong Gam, a public interest litigation group.  In other countries such as Myanmar, local bar associations are forming groups of pro bono lawyers and paralegals to provide community services. Pro bono networks are a notable development in the Asian pro bono culture. 

Stronger legal aid

Flowing out of Sustainable Development Goal  16 - the first ever global commitment to achieving equal justice for all - there is a new impetus in Asia to develop justice initiatives. Within the last year, India has implemented new legal aid schemes to target specific vulnerable groups such as victims of natural disasters, trafficking, drug abuse and the mentally ill. Bangladesh has broadened its legal aid to include Supreme Court matters for indigent people. The China General Office of the State Council has also issued new legal aid guidelines that improve the scope, access and quality of legal aid to vulnerable communities.

Pro bono services will never, and should never, be a substitute for properly funded legal aid systems. Rather, strong legal aid increases the capacity of lawyers to undertake pro bono work for clients who are not eligible for aid and fall through the cracks.  A renewed focus on legal aid has been a positive development in Asia and one which we expect will continue over the coming year.