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Pro bono scheme mooted -

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Pro bono scheme mooted

The World Today - Friday, 12 September , 2008 12:42:00

Reporter: Paula Kruger

ELEANOR HALL: The Federal Government is considering a scheme that would make pro bono work
mandatory for law firms that want to work for the Commonwealth.

But a survey of Australia's top legal firms suggests a voluntary program may work just as well.

It shows that they are already doing more than $48 million worth of pro bono work each year.

But while there has been a lot of praise for Australia's growing pro bono culture, there are also
concerns it reflects weaknesses in the country's legal aid system, as Paula Kruger reports.

PAULA KRUGER: It may not be the first impression that comes to mind when thinking of the country's
biggest law firms, but they are getting quite competitive when it comes to doing work for free.

John Corker is the director of the National Pro Bono Resource Centre at the University of New South

Two years ago, the centre started an aspirational target scheme that called on law firms to
dedicate 35 working hours per lawyer each year to pro bono work.

He says a new survey has shown the scheme has been very successful.

JOHN CORKER: The survey showed quite a diversity in contribution amongst these 25 top law firms,
and what was interesting was that the firms that have signed up to the centre's pro bono
aspirational target, which was only launched two years ago, were right at the top of the pile in
terms of performing.

In fact, the hours they did, just the top five firms, were nearly half of the total contribution of
the 25 firms, but there seems to be some support for the use of the aspirational target.

PAULA KRUGER: Having a solid pro bono program is considered essential if a big firm wants to
attract some of the best young lawyers the country has to offer.

Lawyers at the other and lower end of the scale are known for having an even higher percentage of
their time dedicated to pro bono work, but it is the middle tier that is lagging.

For the firms that aren't so interested, the Federal Government is considering a mandatory scheme
that would require a firm to dedicate a certain percentage of their efforts to pro bono work.

But John Corker hopes it doesn't come to that.

JOHN CORKER: We think that it's really important that the reason that people do it is voluntary,
it's free work, and people are often motivated by a good Samaritan-type initiative. To make it
mandatory can undermine that ethic and it's an important ethical value of the legal profession as
distinct from it being a pure business, it's one of the things that makes it a profession.

So we are certainly not in favour of any sort of mandatory pro bono schemes.

PAULA KRUGER: Such a scheme is in place in Victoria.

Mat Tinkler, is the acting executive director of Pilch, the Public Interest Law Clearing House in
Victoria, an independent non profit legal referral service.

He says he would describe the scheme more as an incentive and not a mandatory system, and that it
has been a great success.

MAT TINKLER: What is really does we think is encourage firms to develop coordinated and targeted
pro bono policies, and really offer the opportunity to their lawyers. So it's not mandatory in that
sense either, in that they, the lawyers who take on the work ultimately in firms don't have to do
the work, they put their hand up if they are interested.

PAULA KRUGER: But is the increasing interest in pro bono work under both voluntary and mandatory
schemes reflect badly on the ability of legal aid to help those who can't afford legal

MAT TINKLER: I think pro bono has necessarily stepped in, particularly over the past decade or so
where legal aid has fallen short, particularly in funding civil and administrative law matters.
Legal aid will typically fund family and criminal law.

PAULA KRUGER: Is it a concern of people who are supportive of pro bono work in a legal firm, that
maybe they will be expected to take over legal aid work?

MATT TINKLER: I think it is a concern of the legal sector in general, that pro bono shouldn't
subsume the sort of work that legal aid should be doing. but that said, I think that the sector
still recognises that there is a genuine role for pro bono to supplement a properly funded legal
aid system.

ELEANOR HALL: Mat Tinler is the acting executive director of the Public Interest Law Clearing House
in Victoria, he was speaking to Paula Kruger.