'Pro bono' legal requirement considered

Attorney-general Chris Finlayson is considering requiring law firms with government contracts to provide "pro bono" legal work for groups such as charities as a condition of their contract.

It follows a call from Law Society president John Marshall for the Government to consider getting big law firms doing more pro bono work.

It would mean law firms benefiting from government contracts be required to offer free legal services up to a certain value to approved groups or causes such as charities or at Community Law Centres.

Mr Finlayson said it was already a requirement of many government contracts in Australia.

"I think it's not a bad idea. It's something I've started to talk about with the Solicitor-general and it's personally an idea I'm quite attracted to."

He said many government contracts were channelled through the Crown Law Office, which he had oversight for, so he was "actively looking" at what changes would be needed to start such a practice.

A spokesman for Justice Minister Simon Power said Mr Power was "intrigued" by the idea and would discuss it with his officials today.

Mr Marshall made the call at the ceremonial "first sitting" of the Supreme Court last Friday, suggesting the Government look at the Australian model of linking pro bono work to government contracts.

In the state of Victoria, for example, firms must undertake pro bono work for an "approved cause" up to a value of about 5%-15% of the fee they earn under any government contract.

Mr Marshall also urged the major firms to take more leadership on building up pro bono services.

Firms in other countries had more structured pro bono systems than New Zealand, including Australia where most big firms had pro bono policies and budgets.

At DLA Phillips Fox, which also has New Zealand offices, 3% of its work was pro bono and lawyers had targets of 50 hours a year.

In New Zealand, Chapman Tripp was the first to set up a formal pro bono programme in 2003 and now has about 50 clients.

Bell Gully and Russell McVeagh have also since set up more structured programmes.

Chapman Tripp partner Nick Wells, who set up Chapman Tripp's programme, said his firm already had an extensive programme as did many others.

"Those who voluntarily do it tend to do it a lot better than those who are told to go and do it.

"It's not a bad idea, but there are already a lot who do it for free anyway."

He set up Chapman Tripp's programme after returning from Australia where it was effectively compulsory and the firm he worked for had a strong role in it.

He estimated Chapman Tripp's pro bono work had doubled since then.

Its dollar value ranged year to year, depending on the needs of its clients.

For example, one client was the Outdoor Pursuits Centre and pro bono work escalated after the canyoning tragedy on the Mangetepopo Stream.

Others included Auckland City Mission, Sir Peter Blake Trust, and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.

In November, Mr Finlayson and the attorneys of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Australia, Canada, and the United States signed a joint declaration on the importance of promoting pro bono work, and pledged to look at ways to build this. - The New Zealand Herald

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