In 2020, the Portuguese pro bono scenario experienced a profound transformation. From a substantive perspective and following this year’s global pandemic, many requests for legal aid became COVID-centred, with NGOs and vulnerable individuals having to navigate emerging cross-sector legislation. Our overall impression, however, was that the pro bono framework underwent a swift adaption process having, in fact, pioneered remarkable strategies.
In this context the legal sector united forces to accelerate an innovative project which became even more relevant this year – the Pro Bono Alliance. In this alliance, a nationwide network of law firms, individual practice lawyers and corporate in-house teams joined forces in pursuit of a single goal: to leverage the available pro bono offer, in a collaborative manner, to embed public access to justice. This project, announced during European Pro Bono Week in 2019, started operating informally in 2020 through pro bono referrals between its members. In a coordinated effort, it secured pro bono assistance in cases ranging from domestic violence to government certifications for new educational models. This collaborative model enables a nationwide network of lawyers, committed to promote (better) access to justice, to provide quality pro bono assistance to NGOs and individuals that would otherwise be left behind.
Moreover, despite all COVID-19 related urgencies and struggles, we were happy to notice that solidarity and the commitment to pro bono action did not vanish. Due to the pandemic, the operations of many pro bono clients were put on hold: from stakeholder disengagement to regular activities being compromised by quarantine, many entered into a deep financial crisis. This reality called for immediate action and, consequently, key players stepped in to provide consulting expertise in order to secure the sustainability of countless social and environmental responses. From academia to consulting companies, efforts were made to put forward social business models, assess new income opportunities and redesign operations even when the pro bono provider itself was struggling to adapt. Together with law firms, these solutions provided integrated support which ultimately mitigated the adverse impacts of the COVID-19 crisis in the social sector in Portugal.
We believe that this interdisciplinary action empowered pro bono clients to continue their journey towards the 2030 UN Agenda by sustaining their ongoing execution of the Sustainable Development Goals. At VdA we were not only glad to witness that attention to these matters did not disappear, but thrilled with the opportunity to provide legal insights on the topic.
In conclusion, the COVID-19 crisis had an inevitable impact on the pro bono scenario in Portugal, but I hope this contribution highlights the regenerative energy and the creativity that blossomed throughout this year.