On Jan. 1, 2008, the Pro bono Declaration for the Americas came into force. This marked a true milestone for pro bono work in Latin America. The signatory law firms made the commitment that each of their lawyers would devote at least 20 hours a year to pro bono work. However, this also posed a new challenge. Law firms had to build an institutional framework dedicated to managing and promoting pro bono work to ensure that they would honour the commitment they undertook when they signed the declaration.
Today, more than 12 years after the entry into force of the declaration, unfortunately the outlook is somewhat bittersweet. In Colombia, several law firms have made substantial progress in building a true pro bono practice, with coordinators, pro bono partners, pro bono manuals and a programme for evaluating, promoting and rewarding the pro bono work of their associates. However, Colombia, and Latin America in general, are far from fulfilling the purpose of the declaration. As this same Index revealed in 2016, the average annual pro bono contribution of lawyers in Latin America is 11.7 hours – far behind Europe, the United States, Asia and Africa, and only just over half of the commitment set forth in the declaration.
This is paradoxical to say the least. Latin America is a region in which access to justice is limited and where therefore pro bono work is even more crucial than in other regions of the world. Colombia specifically is in a post-conflict era in which it is key that victims of and former participants in our armed conflict have access to the means of peaceful resolution. In this context, programmes like Justice for a Sustainable Peace, developed by Fundación ProBono Colombia and the United States Agency for International Development, are of paramount importance. This programme, in which our firm PPU has actively participated, aims to ensure that victims of Colombia’s armed conflict have access to pro bono legal representation to resolve matters such as access to health and education services.
In conclusion, in light of the fundamental role that pro bono work plays in access to justice in Colombia and Latin America, it is imperative that law firms take the necessary steps to make pro bono work an essential component of their corporate responsibility programmes. Law firms are not alone in this endeavour. An example is the “Guide to Establishing a Pro Bono Program at Your Law Firm” by the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, which is an exceptional starting point for law firms wishing to develop a robust pro bono practice capable of fulfilling the object and purpose of the declaration.