By Edwin Rekosh, executive director, PILnet
This Thursday and Friday, more than 300 lawyers and NGO leaders will converge on Berlin for PILnet´s European Pro Bono Forum. PILnet, a global network for public interest law, has been organising the forum for five years now, and this is the biggest gathering yet - testimony to the growing support for pro bono we see across the continent.
This is really an exciting time for pro bono, particularly in Germany where we’re holding the forum this year. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 set off a great wave of change across Europe, and that change shone a very bright light on the rule of law and the protection of social justice.
When PILnet was originally founded, its mission was to work in Central and Eastern European countries that were still re-inventing themselves, after decades during which the law was seen by many as a means of state control rather than a tool that could be used to protect human rights and the rule of law.
So now we’ll be meeting just a short U-Bahn ride from where the old Wall separated East from West. And we’ll be welcoming people from across the European continent and around the world. All of us are coming to Berlin to further the development of pro bono within our own legal communities and to find ways of collaborating with NGOs that are helping to solve social problems, strengthening human rights and pursuing justice.
The rapid global rise of pro bono over the past decade has been one of the most remarkable developments in the field of law. Its spread throughout Europe was certainly inspired by the example of the United States, where organised pro bono programmes first developed, but it was influenced even more by the successful adaptation of pro bono practice in the UK.
PILnet began to notice an increasing European interest in more organised forms of pro bono around 2005. We began to develop pro bono models drawn from the experience of similar institutions in the United States, as well as early experiments in Latin America begun about a decade ago in countries such as Brazil and Chile. But we adapted the model in a way that emphasises the specific nature of legal needs in continental countries.
In Europe, there is substantial government funding available for civil legal services to individuals, unlike in the United States where access to civil legal aid is not considered a right. And there is a strong feeling within the European legal profession that voluntary activities should not replace the critical role of the state in providing basic legal aid, with the current debate around budget cuts in the UK offering a stern word of warning.
On the other hand, the state cannot solve all social problems on its own; there is a critically important role for pro bono lawyers to play in assisting NGOs that address those needs. Indeed, this is a trend felt as far afield as France and Nigeria, Hong Kong and Brazil.
Even though the forum is now in its fifth year, I’m always surprised by how much energy can be generated by a room full of people who care passionately about using law for the public good.
These are amazing lawyers serving some critically important causes, and the forum´s incredibly diverse agenda speaks to their experience and insight. You’ll hear more about the issues facing pro bono from the TrustLaw journalists who will be covering the forum once it gets started on Nov. 17, and I’ll be posting during the forum as well. So do join us virtually in Berlin for the fifth European Pro Bono Forum.