The Advisory: Volume 10, Issue 3, July 2012

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From the President

All Lawyers to Consider Doing their Part in Providing Pro Bono Legal Services

By Steve Raby, QC, President, Law Society of Alberta

It is hard to believe that five years has gone by since the 100th anniversary of the Law Society of Alberta and the establishment of Pro Bono Law Alberta (PBLA) as the legacy project of the anniversary.

In the last five years, we have seen court systems increasingly under strain in virtually all Commonwealth jurisdictions, and in some of those jurisdictions, arguably to the point of crisis.

There have been repeated public pronouncements by senior members of the judiciary across Canada, and last summer from the Governor General, suggesting that the high cost of legal services has put access to the courts out of the reach of not only the poor, but also middle income Canadians and that the legal profession needs to find a solution to this problem.

Mention is also made of government cutbacks to services supporting the operation of the courts and to the level of funding for legal aid in the face of economic conditions which deteriorated significantly in 2008 and have not fully recovered.

Cost of Services to Albertans Now Lower

I find that the criticism of the profession relating to the cost of provision of legal services in the context of access to the courts to be an extremely simplistic approach to the problem. If it were as simple as lawyers pricing themselves out of the market, then I believe that the market would have taken care of that problem long ago.

With respect to personal legal services which do not involve access to the courts, the cost to ordinary Albertans of those services is, in my view, much lower on a real dollar basis than it was when I first started practising law in 1977. Wills, probate, residential real estate and routine corporate matters are all, I would suggest, available to Albertans of average means. This view appears to be supported by some of the data we received from our Ipsos Reid survey of Albertans in the course of the work completed by our Alternative Delivery of Legal Services Task Force.

Legal Profession to do its Part

Notwithstanding the foregoing however, it is clear that the cost of legal services where the courts are involved is significant. Although I am of the view that it is wrong to expect the legal profession to solve this problem on its own, there is no question that as an intrinsic part of the judicial system, the legal profession must do its part.

In this edition of the Advisory, you will see a number of articles dealing with the good work that a number of organizations are doing to attempt to alleviate court access and cost difficulties. We are especially proud of the role being played by PBLA in “raising the pro bono bar”.

In my view, the two key elements to the work being performed by PBLA are “culture” and “opportunity”.

Although many lawyers routinely provide pro bono legal services to Albertans who would otherwise be unable to pay for same, arguably this is not an ingrained cultural phenomenon in the profession in this province as it is, for example, in some parts of the United States.

So, making pro bono activities a part of an individual lawyer’s practice and having firms encourage pro bono activities will go a long way to increasing the pro bono activities of the bar.

Perhaps more importantly, PBLA provides the opportunity for lawyers and firms to participate in pro bono activities where they might not otherwise be prepared to commit to those activities due to administrative and organizational burdens.

Pro Bono Law Alberta has identified a number of initiatives and has then gone out to find lawyers and firms to participate in those initiatives.

But equally, if a lawyer or a firm has an interest in providing pro bono services or if they have an idea as to what type of services they would like to provide but don’t know how to organize the activity, then PBLA would love to hear from you.

Volunteering Makes a Difference

Last Fall, my firm was involved in one of the activities organized by PBLA. This one was held in conjunction with the Calgary Public Library and was called “Legal Grounds”. It was an educational event themed as a coffee house.

As part of the program, lawyers from my firm provided one-on-one consultation to members of the public on a variety of legal issues. I volunteered for the morning shift and I can tell you that it had been a long time since I went to work with that nervous lump in my throat, since I was to be providing advice on areas of the law that I wasn’t very familiar with.

In the end, I think I did okay, and I shared in the satisfaction of knowing that we’d made at least a bit of a difference to 103 individuals by providing some legal advice.

(And I must note that in conjunction with Law Day in Lethbridge, a similar program resulted in service to 105 individuals, so we have a new bar to rise above in Calgary this year).

The participants from my firm were universal in their praise of the program and in their excitement about participating in it.

While we are all very busy dealing with paying clients and the administrative aspects of the practice of law, I would encourage all members of the Law Society of Alberta to consider whether they are doing their part to assist in the provision of pro bono legal services. I congratulate Pro Bono Law Alberta on its fifth anniversary and its achievements to date.

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