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Law Society of Ontario should step up for pro bono | Guy Pratte

Thursday, April 25, 2019 @ 8:46 AM | By Guy Pratte

Guy Pratte %>
Guy Pratte
The recent provincial budget proposal of a 30 per cent funding cut to Legal Aid Ontario with no funding for Pro Bono Ontario (PBO), highlights the challenges the legal profession needs to grapple with: the access to justice crisis, the obligations of government, a healthy legal aid and the need to innovate.

While these issues require a multipronged approach, pro bono is an essential component of any solution. In 2012 the Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC) recognized this fact and carved out guaranteed funding for that province’s organized pro bono programs.

In addition to realizing that its pro bono organizations are in a better position than individual lawyers to facilitate the bar’s efforts and reach vulnerable clients who don’t know where to turn for help, the LSBC understood that supporting pro bono lends the profession “greater credibility when it comes to discussing how to improve access to justice.”

Like its B.C. counterpart, the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) is uniquely positioned to support its organized pro bono provider. As the regulator of the professionals who provide pro bono services, the LSO has the status and mandate to do so. The Law Society Act explicitly mentions the LSO’s “duty to act so as to facilitate access to justice for the people of Ontario”. It is consistent with that duty to support legal professionals as they carry out their own individual obligation to ensure access to justice. As pro bono programs are the vehicle through which so many of these professionals do that, it would be appropriate and public-minded for the law society to ensure the sustainability of these programs.

While it’s true that the LSO can’t support everything, this is the right moment to consider the many advantages of funding pro bono programs. Just as the duty of competence can be supported with mentorship programs and education, the duty to ensure access to justice can be supported by sustaining pro bono programs like those operated by Pro Bono Ontario.

At one level, this optimizes impact because pro bono organizations can co-ordinate outreach to the public and raise the profile of high-quality services. At another level, this generates efficiencies because the administrative costs of organizing pro bono are shifted from individual professionals to a centralized charity. Even more, these modest costs produce impressive savings for the justice system. An independent economic analysis has demonstrated that PBO’s court-based programs produce a 10 to 1 return on investment, which amounts to more than $5 million in annual savings.

From the public’s perspective, strong pro bono programs mean that tens of thousands of people with nowhere else to turn get the help they need. As an immediate benefit, this brings enormous financial and emotional relief to vulnerable members of our community. Over time, this also means that the whole public — not just those who can afford legal services — enjoys greater confidence in the justice system.

As a primary steward of that system, the Law Society of Ontario should seize the opportunity to promote that public confidence in the legal profession by supporting structured and efficient pro bono programs that leverage and organize the individual efforts of many of its members for the greater benefit of the entire community.

Guy Pratte is the chair of Pro Bono Ontario and a partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP.
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