National pro bono group to aid with access to justice

As legal aid budgets are squeezed, more members of the public are looking for pro bono services to help with their legal needs. Into that gap comes the recently formed Pro Bono Canada.

Incorporated last fall, Pro Bono Canada is an initiative born out of the five provincial pro bono organizations in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec. It will be having it’s coming-out party at the National Pro Bono Conference in Regina this week, which will be for many lawyers their first exposure to the organization.

“The idea of Pro Bono Canada is that we will not be direct program deliverers, but we’ll be helping support the expansion of pro bono,” says Dennis O’Connor, former associate chief justice of Ontario and chairman of organization.

Along with O’Connor, the organization is run by the executive directors of the five provincial pro bono groups and two other trustees: former Supreme Court of Canada justice Marie Deschamps and former B.C. chief justice Lance Finch.

In the past year, Pro Bono Canada has begun working on a number of initiatives. One of their primary goals is to help start pro bono organizations in the provinces and territories that currently don’t have any.

“The whole idea of it is to promote pro bono service, to give it a national voice, and have a centre where other jurisdictions that are trying to get pro bono up and running can come and get information and be connected with the groups that have already started successful programs,” says Kara-Dawn Jordan, executive director of Pro Bono Law Saskatchewan.

The organization is already in discussions with Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories about starting up pro bono groups in those jurisdictions.

“That is one of our objects, to promote and assist with expansion,” says O’Connor.

But Pro Bono Canada isn’t looking to provide any services directly to the public.

“The people in the provinces and the communities, ultimately they’re going to be the volunteers and will have to run their own programs,” says O’Connor.

The organization has also partnered with Pro Bono Students Canada to develop and administer a survey to law firms about their pro bono activities. O’Connor says that the idea is to let students know which firms are the most committed to pro bono work so that they can factor that into their decision-making when they’re searching for a job.

One way that Pro Bono Canada is looking to fund itself is through cy-près awards given out in class action settlements.

“There is a natural connection between class actions and pro bono,” says O’Connor. “Class actions are tool that the provinces have put in place to address access to justice problems for certain types of cases.”

Pro Bono Canada has created material that encourages lawyers to consider the organization for any cy-près awards that are given out.

“If we were to receive funds, then we have a transparent formula where we would then filter the money down to provincial organizations who actually deliver the programs,” says O’Connor.

While access to justice has become a more acute problem, Jordan believes the legal community has been stepping up to the challenge. O’Connor points out that last year, almost 30,000 Canadians were provided pro bono services.

“It’s a good news story for the legal profession and I’m not sure as to how widely appreciated it is,” he says.

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