Pro bono work in Hungary actually has a tradition stretching back more than a century; Károly Eötvös successfully defended one of the most influential pro bono cases in 1882-83 in the so-called “Tiszaeszlár Affair”, which involved an anti-Semitic blood libel. In 1915 the Budapest Bar Association went so far as to state that free legal services formed a “noble heritage that had become part of legal practice”. During Hungary’s 40-year period of communist rule, however, the pro bono concept - like so much else - was lost. It is only since the collapse of communism and the political changes of 1989 that Hungary’s pro bono culture has been reborn. Nowadays, organisations such as PILNet and TrustLaw, acting as clearinghouses for NGOs, play a huge role in putting pro bono representation on a more organised basis. Budapest still leads the way in taking on more pro bono work than is the case in provincial cities, not least because international law firms and the bigger Hungarian legal offices tend to be based in the capital and show more willingness generally to work on these matters.
Hungary’s laws regulate legal aid services in both civil and criminal proceedings. There are also associations for the protection of consumer interests (which can pursue public claims to enforce consumer rights), and several NGOs have their own legal assistance service.
The background environment for pro bono work underwent some changes due, among other things, to a law regarding civil organisations that came into force in 2012 (Act CLXXV of 2011 on the Freedom of Association, on Public Benefit Status, and on the Activities of and Support for Civil Society Organisations). After 2012, due to stricter requirements, a number of smaller NGOs lost their public benefit status, which resulted in ever-increasing financial problems for them. However, it can be said that the above also gave a clearer picture about which organisations have the most significant size and capacity. It also resulted in the pro-bono work of law firms becoming even more important, as many of the smaller NGOs simply do not have the necessary in-house capacity.
Slow proceedings are another challenge local NGOs and pro bono lawyers must contend with. The registration of any changes before the competent court of registration related to NGOs can take several months (we have even seen proceedings in some cases take as long as one year), as the courts of registration in Hungary are generally overwhelmed.
There is one other challenge in Hungary for some law firms, and that is simply being brave enough to take on matters that might really make a difference, but where conflict is inevitable with organisations or vested interests that have huge political or financial influence.