Enhancing Access to Justice in Canada through Pro Bono

by Peter L'Esperance- Lawyer, McInnes Cooper
Monday, 6 February 2023 10:36 GMT

Canada’s legal profession has an established tradition of encouraging its members to provide pro bono legal services to marginalized communities, positive impact organizations, and equity seeking groups. However, more can be done to ensure our profession leverages pro bono as a channel to enhance access to justice, generate meaningful benefits for lawyers and law firms, and contribute to addressing the critical issues of our time.

In their first days of law school, students are invited to join Pro Bono Students Canada, a national network of 1,500 law students and 550 lawyers operating out of 22 hubs across Canada.[1] In their second and third years, students can receive academic credit by interning at university-affiliated legal aid clinics. During their legal apprenticeships as “articling” students, private firms can sponsor a student’s placement with public interest organizations. After being “called to the bar”, lawyers can deliver pro bono legal services through legal aid clinics, public interest organizations, provincial pro bono referral agencies, provincial legal information societies, and pro bono practices embedded in private law firms, among other channels.[2]

Yet, despite the many diverse channels through which Canadian lawyers have the opportunity to provide pro bono services, the decision to do so is discretionary. The Canadian Bar Association, which represents 36,000 lawyers, judges, notaries, law teachers, and law students across Canada, recommends its members “strive to contribute 50 hours or 3% of billings per year on a pro bono basis.”[3] The discretionary nature of the recommendation increases the risk of pro bono legal services being under-provided, thereby compromising access to justice.

There are, however, strategies to expand pro bono legal practices in private practice in Canada, including:

  • Regulatory amendments to make providing pro bono legal services mandatory;[4]
  • Celebrating innovative models of providing pro bono legal services, including student sponsorships, lawyer secondments, crediting pro bono time against billable targets, and designated pro bono coordinators or committees;
  • Communicating the benefits of providing pro bono legal services, including creating learning opportunities for new lawyers, reputational benefits for firms and, most importantly, positive impacts for communities;
  • Strengthening partnerships with organizations that facilitate pro bono opportunities, including the Thomson Reuters Trust Law Network, Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation, and local organizations; and
  • Alleviating the competing pressures on pro bono practice, including inordinate and billable targets and file management practices that isolate individual lawyers. 

I am grateful to work at McInnes Cooper, a firm that supports pro bono initiatives by crediting pro bono time against billable targets, maintaining a dedicated pro bono coordinator, and cultivating partnerships with local and international pro bono referral sources. Our pro bono program prioritizes historically and persistently marginalized communities, including newcomers and refugees, racialized communities, and people affected by illness or disability. To generate pro bono engagements that are responsive to community need, we partner with community-focused organizations, including the IWK Health Centre, Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, ReachAbility, among many others.[5] Our firm is also open to partnering with our colleagues in other law firms to increase our impact and effectiveness. Most recently, we partnered with Atlantic Canadian law firms Stewart McKelvey and IY Law to deliver coordinated pro bono immigration and resettlement support services to help families displaced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine to immigrate to and settle in Atlantic Canada, contributing over $100,000 in pro bono legal services to 34 individuals and families.[6]

McInnes Cooper is one example, among countless others, of Canadian lawyers and law firms investing their time, talent, and effort in delivering pro bono services in critical areas. The Canadian legal profession has an established tradition of encouraging members to provide pro bono legal services, Despite this, more can be done to ensure lawyers and law firms prioritize pro bono initiatives and expand access to justice. By doing so, lawyers, law firms, and the justice system as a whole will realize meaningful benefits.[7] Moreover, lawyers and law firms can align their legal skillsets to contribute to global efforts to address the critical issues of our time, including racial equity, Indigenous reconciliation, and climate justice.

This article is information only; it is not legal advice. McInnes Cooper excludes all liability for anything contained in or any use of this article. © McInnes Cooper, 2022. All rights reserved.

[1] Pro Bono Students Canada, “Impact”, online: https://www.probonostudents.ca/impact.

[2] Canadian Bar Association, “Pro Bono Resources In Canada”, online: <https://www.cba.org/sections/pro-bono/pro-bono-resources-in-canada/resources>.

[3] Canadian Bar Association, “Resolution 98-01-A Promoting a Pro Bono Culture in the Canadian Legal Profession”, online: http://www.cba.org/CBAMediaLibrary/cba_na/PDFs/LLR/98-01-A.pdf.

[4] See Jayme Anton, “Should the Canadian Legal Profession Embrace Mandatory Pro Bono Work as a Pillar of Increased Access to Justice?” in the Saskatchewan Law Review (March 6, 2017), online: <https://sasklawreview.ca/comment/should-the-canadian-legal-profession-embrace-maCBCndatory-pro-bono-work-as-a-pillar-of-increased-access-to-justice.php>.

[5] McInnes Cooper, “Pro Bono Program”, online: https://www.mcinnescooper.com/our-firm/pro-bono-program/.

[6] CBC News, “Nova Scotia lawyers working pro bono to help settle Ukrainians fleeing war” (March 9, 2022), online: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/lawyers-helping-ukrainian-refugees-nova-scotia-war-1.6378573.

[7] Aiden MacNab, “Why is pro bono work important?” in Canadian Lawyer (July 30, 2021), online: https://www.canadianlawyermag.com/resources/practice-management/why-is-pro-bono-work-important/358562.

Update cookies preferences