Like other Latin American countries, Brazil is marked by striking social and economic inequalities that have a great impact on access to justice. Although the Brazilian Federal Constitution guarantees a series of fundamental rights, including the right to free and public legal aid, most of the population encounter obstacles to the genuine and non-discriminatory access to their rights.
In a country of continental dimensions, half of the population possess less than 3 percent of the total wealth and 36 percent are considered poor. For each 100,000 inhabitants, there are fewer than four public defenders. This scenario is aggravated by the low educational levels of the population, constituting a majority of underprivileged people unable to claim rights or challenge crimes, abuses and violations.
Furthermore, until 2015, the Brazilian Bar Association – wrongly assuming it would be an artifice to attract clients unduly – was resistant to pro bono and prohibited the provision of free legal services to individuals.
However, in recent years, a growing concern within law firms about the responsibility of legal professionals and the role they can play in tackling the asymmetry in the country seems to provide a great opportunity for a cultural turning point.
The Brazilian Bar Association recognised the practice of pro bono at the end of 2015, an important step towards facilitating the social function of the lawyer, provided for in the code that governs the profession. In response, there is a growing interest among law firms in strengthening the practice of pro bono and creating positions or departments fully dedicated to public interest law.
Furthermore, cases of great repercussion and commotion have been the subject of in-depth public debates related to human rights in matters such as racism – which historically structures Brazilian society and, up to recent years, was not fully admitted and properly discussed – LGBT rights, gender violence, mass incarceration, rights of indigenous populations, and others.
That has led to questions about the substantial difference that may be caused by having – or not having – the resources to pay for legal advice, which strengthens the comprehension that access to justice is in itself a human right and an essential tool for realising a range of other basic rights.
In this scenario, pro bono can play a fundamental role, not only through litigation and advisory law but also in research and the production of legal knowledge that can support the work of civil society organisations in the field.
If the country has such enormous challenges to its 210 million people, whereby inequalities and widespread violations of human rights are a sad reality, it also has the means to overcome this situation. A growing network of pro bono legal services, allied to the fundamental and central role of public defenders, is essential. With 1.1 million lawyers – one for every 190 people – and a new generation of law students committed to the social needs of the underprivileged, Brazil has a great opportunity to reframe the role of lawyers and transform the scenario of inequality in access to justice.