MADRID (TrustLaw) –Spanish society is not only interested in the concept of pro bono but identifies with it, Spanish Minister of Justice Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón told an audience at the opening of PILnet’s 6th annual European Pro Bono Forum in Madrid on Thursday.
Ruiz-Gallardón said that in a time of crisis, such as the present dire economic situation in his country, pro bono work takes on a very special importance as government resources for public legal aid assistance shrink under austerity measures.
He said that he expected the Spanish government and legal community will follow through on many of the opportunities and ideas that will be discussed at the summit.
“Lawyers need to give back to society what they have been able to pull from it,” Ruiz-Gallardón said. He added that there is a need for generosity and positiveness in the face of the economic crisis that is gripping Spain, as well as many other countries in the Euro zone and beyond.
In that, he echoed the message of Antonio Hernández-Gil Álvarez-Cienfuegos, dean of the Madrid Bar Association, who spoke at the opening session. The forum gathers lawyers and members of civil society organizations to explore ways in which to improve pro bono practices around the world.
The forum happens at a time when the Spanish government has approved austerity measures that, among other things, could significantly hobble the legal aid system.
Legal aid is an individual’s right under Spain’s constitution. It was paid for by the national government until it was transferred to regional governments in 2003. Organising the legal aid system is one of the main tasks of the regional Bar Associations.
In Madrid, the regional government has reduced legal aid fees paid to lawyers for representation of clients by 20 percent as of January 2013. It also will halt funding to the so-called Legal Guidance Services - a range of services which assist various groups within the population, such as women, immigrants, people with disabilities and the elderly.
This last measure is likely to leave 60,000 people in the Spanish capital without this kind of legal service, according to a briefing emailed to TrustLaw by the Madrid Bar Association.
The Justice Minister stressed that Spain must strive to achieve what has already been achieved in countries such as the United States and the UK, where pro bono is a well-established, better-resourced reality. In Spain it is still a relatively new concept that remains obscure to many outside the legal sector.
NOT JUST SPAIN
Spain is not the only victim of cuts in public spending for legal aid.
Noeline Blackwell of the Free Legal Advice Centre in Ireland said that austerity cuts in her country meant that funding to organisations helping the poor and marginalized was taken away partially, if not completely.
“The voice of the marginalised in Ireland is weaker than it has ever been,” she said.
Blackwell said that structured pro bono was very poor in Ireland and that her organisation was working to build capacity in the NGO sector to fill this gap.
(Editing by Lisa Anderson)