Pro bono in Ireland is gathering momentum. The establishment of the Public Interest law Alliance (PILA), a national clearinghouse, in 2009 represented a significant step in driving the pro bono movement in Ireland. PILA operates a Pro Bono Referral Scheme, ensuring that both lawyers and social justice organisations have the skills, knowledge and networks to address systemic problems and achieve effective social change.
Commercial law firms are increasing their commitment to pro bono legal work. A&L Goodbody and Arthur Cox, for example, have hired dedicated pro bono associates, and both firms are members of the UK Collaborative Plan for Pro Bono. Member firms work collaboratively to develop the systems and infrastructure to allow pro bono services to be effectively delivered to address unmet legal need. The plan incorporates an aspirational target of 25 pro bono hours per fee earner each year.
November 2019 marked an important milestone: the first celebration of Pro Bono Week Ireland, which saw law firm and NGO partners come together to raise pro bono awareness among the legal profession and civil society. These efforts continue as PILA, law firms, and in-house counsel regularly meet to develop a shared definition of and commitment to pro bono work. Significantly, earlier this year the Office of Government Procurement launched a revised framework agreement for legal services requiring all law firms to commit to work towards providing up to 20 hours of pro bono legal services, for every lawyer involved in the delivery of the agreement.
In recent years there has been an increase in commercial law firms collaborating with NGO partners to implement a range of pro bono projects. These projects include secondee placements, legal information events, strategic litigation and the staffing of housing and law centre clinics. A noteworthy pilot project is led by international NGO Kids in Need of Defence (KIND), which supports lawyers representing unaccompanied minors entering the state as refugees in their applications for family reunification. Partners include Microsoft, Arthur Cox, A&L Goodbody, the Irish Refugee Council and the Immigrant Council of Ireland.
In times of crisis, challenges are often greatest for the most marginalised and vulnerable in society. In addition to increasing pro bono work in response to the COVID-19 crisis, law firms A&L Goodbody, Arthur Cox and McCann Fitzgerald collaborated with TrustLaw to run a series of interactive webinars addressing the legal challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. They were designed specifically to help charities, NGOs and social enterprises.
While recent pro bono developments in Ireland are promising, the challenge of unmet legal needs is substantial and pro bono work alone can never be a replacement for a properly resourced national legal aid system. The Free Legal Advice Centre (FLAC) reports receiving over 25,000 requests for legal information and advice annually from individuals trying to navigate the courts without legal representation and struggling with inaccessible court forms and procedures. Plans to host the PILnet Global Forum in Dublin in 2021 have been welcomed by the legal profession and will serve as an important event to highlight key developments and challenges as the pro bono sector in Ireland continues to grow.