Pro bono culture in Colombia: goals and challenges

Tuesday, 26 July 2016 12:28 GMT

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Gómez-Pinzón Zuleta's experience on the identification of obstacles and the ways to solve them

Amidst all the social problems we have in Colombia, access to justice does not have enough visibility and society has not given it the importance that it deserves.  Even with governmental efforts and private initiatives to give free legal services to people, there is still a gap on access to justice for most vulnerable populations, not only to be represented in administrative and judicial matters, but also on the enforcement and efficiency of their rights. As a legal firm, Gomez-Pinzon Zuleta Abogados strongly believes that law is an excellent tool to make human rights real, to help solve social problems and, most of all, to construct an equal and fair society.

Pro bono culture is a recent development in the legal sector in Colombia. Despite the fact that some legal firms and independent lawyers have always provided free legal services, pro bono work was not institutionalized until 2008, with the Pro Bono Declaration for the Americas and the creation of Fundacion ProBono Colombia. Nowadays the majority of prestigious law firms have implemented pro bono programs as part of their corporate social responsibility policies. At first, the main challenge was to convince lawyers of the importance of pro bono work and the creation of pro bono programs suitable to the firms’ interests and the legal needs of potential pro bono clients. Currently, pro bono programs are diverse and lawyers are aware of the different ways to impact society through free legal services.

Nevertheless, being a new concept, pro bono has not made a huge impact on the access to justice gap and the main challenge pro bono has in Colombia is still to become known by the population that needs it.  It is necessary to be aware that each challenge and each cause of the gap in access to justice needs to be evaluated in the context of poverty, armed conflict, social inequality, violence, corruption, and general distrust in institutions, among other social factors in Colombia.  

We have described below each of these challenges and the way in which at Gómez-Pinzón Zuleta we have tried to fight them throughout our pro bono program, mainly in the consolidation of seven lines of action.

  1. Identification of legal needs:

 Some people do not identify their problems as legal problems, making it impossible for lawyers to help them through legal consulting. In Colombia, essential needs such as access to medical services, to social security guarantees and welfare allocations, in some cases require legal assistance because of the highly technical nature of the procedures established for claiming those services and rights. However, people rarely ask for legal help to get those guarantees, therefore it is necessary to give them tools to identify whether they require legal assistance to solve their problems.  

At GPZ we have developed two lines of action to fight this problem:

  • “Know your rights” campaign: Being conscious of the general unfamiliarity of low-income people on their rights, we offer free legal education workshops on relevant matters for specific vulnerable communities.
  • Public interest research projects: Working with certain non-profit organizations we provide research on social and public interest matters aimed at creating an impact on a specific vulnerable population. The principle objective of this line of action is to identify the current situation of these populations in order to clarify the possible legal solutions available.
  1. Legal assistance for individuals:

This line of action is related to the classic pro bono practice in which lawyers assist low-income and vulnerable people. Given the fact that pro bono work must respond to the legal needs of society and not only to the interests of lawyers on our firm, at GPZ we have promoted assistance in all areas of the law, because we believe that lawyers in our firm have a holistic education and training and are able to work with high standards of quality in any legal matter that a pro bono client requires.

Therefore, we have developed two lines of action to work on access to justice in favor of people:

  • Legal advice: The identification of the current legal situation for pro bono clients is a challenge they are not capable of solving on their own. That is why at GPZ we provide free legal services for consulting on are the possible legal ways to act in accordance with the pro bono client interests, in the same way we advise our commercial clients.
  • Legal representation on administrative and judicial institutions: In case it is necessary, if the legal needs and interests of pro bono clients demand legal representation at administrative and judicial institutions, we provide this representation in any legal matter. 
  1. Legal advice for NGOs:

Non-government organizations, public interest and non-profit institutes that work on philanthropic causes often require legal aid, and their limited economic resources are not enough to cover a high quality service. Thus, these organizations are forced to improvise solutions that can affect the efficiency of their programs. At GPZ we offer mostly two types of services for non-profit organizations:

  • Legal advice on institutional needs: We provide services to improve the internal administration and operation of the organization, such as tax advice, labor and corporate matters.
  • Legal advice for public interest projects that benefit the communities the organizations work with: Each NGO or non-profit organization has diverse programs to reach their legal purpose and to benefit society. Developing those programs requires some legal and administrative procedures that are filled with legal technicalities, hence we provide free services to conduct these procedures in order to guarantee that these programs can have the impact they are aimed for. 
  1. Communities’ needs and public interest activism.

As a legal firm, at GPZ we strongly believe that pro bono work can cause a high impact on society. Consequently, pro bono lawyers can work on human rights and public interest activism as a way to contribute to the construction of a fair and equal society. For this new line of action, we offer counseling in high impact cases where the representation of a victim not only seeks for the protection of individual rights, but also seeks to create an impact on the legal system or to protect an entire community.

The above outlines  some of our efforts as a firm to address the access to justice gap. However, we are conscious that they are not enough to satisfy the legal needs of those who cannot afford a lawyer or to change the reality of our country; but if it can change the life of a client we believe it is worth the effort. 

Moreover, pro bono practice in Colombia presents new challenges and obstacles that require new lines of action and programs capable of making pro bono a useful tool to fight them. Below are some of the current challenges we face in Colombia:

  1. There is a lack of awareness of the power that lawyers have in their hands to change society and to use their knowledge in favor of those who need it the most.
  2. It is necessary to fight against the prejudice that pro bono is only for litigators. New pro bono practices and lines of actions are not known by the legal community and lawyers do not relate advocacy with pro bono causes.
  3. Pro bono is mostly practiced in urban spaces and some of the most vulnerable communities are located far from the capital or the cities in which law firms are placed.
  4. The lack of access to information does not allow the potential pro bono clients to access free legal services because they do not know law firms have pro bono programs they can access.
  5. The unique situation in which our country finds itself at the end of many years of internal conflict poses many new questions regarding access to justice; private lawyers, therefore, have to consider that their help is needed in this new national scenario.

In conclusion, at Gomez-Pinzon Zuleta we believe that pro bono is a growth instrument that can be transformed according to society´s legal needs. We are committed to addressing some of the current challenges and obstacles to the practice of pro bono, in order to use it to drive social change.