Honoring Projects at the Local Level: 2017 Shortlist

People live in real towns, send their kids to real schools, and need access to justice where they – and we – live. This is why PILnet celebrates projects that register at the community level with its Award for Local Pro Bono Impact. In recognition of the organization’s 20th anniversary, nominations were accepted from around the world. Six projects were shortlisted for the award, and two were selected for special mention.

The award winner will be announced on the evening of 18 October in Budapest, at PILnet’s 20th Anniversary & Global Pro Bono Awards Dinner.

The shortlisted projects

In Argentina, the Comisión de Trabajo Pro Bono in Buenos Aires provided pro bono assistance to the Argentinian Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. In particular, the Comisión worked in partnership with some of the Ministry’s “Centros de Acceso a la Justicia“, providing basic legal assistance to underprivileged communities in the city’s villas, or shanty towns. 20 member law firms of the Comisión de Trabajo Pro Bono e Interés Público (part of the Buenos Aires City Law Association) mobilized to advise and represent residents of the villas on disability rights, access to health care programs and non-contributory pensions, and immigration and documentation issues. They also provided legal advice to victims of domestic or gender violence. The project is expected to expand to other villas throughout the Buenos Aires area.

Homepage of yAvo.md

The homepage of yAvo.md allows users to ask any legal question, either directly to a lawyer or through an archive search of previously addressed topics.

In Moldova, Turcan Cazac launched the country’s first online legal empowerment platform, yAvo.md. The platform, which offers free domestic legal advice to Moldovans, aims to close the justice gap between legal need and access to legal information. Legal services in Moldova are traditionally expensive and pro bono is not a norm among legal professionals. Meanwhile, legal aid for civil cases remains in its developing stage. The platform has been lauded for its simple, easy-to-use interface, allowing citizens of all walks of life to access legal information without first going through a lengthy registration process.

Similarly in Australia, Justice Connect, in partnership with 55 Australian law firms, has transformed the delivery of legal services to NGOs through the NFP Law Information Hub. The Hub is a logical, user-friendly system that provides a comprehensive set of 260+ resources covering 80 legal topics across the life cycle of an NGO, accessible for NGOs of all levels of sophistication. The innovative nature of this project has allowed for pro bono lawyers throughout the country to dedicate their expertise to more urgent and genuinely difficult legal problems, leaving simpler administrative questions to NGOs themselves. It has provided a sustainable model that could be replicated in various jurisdictions around the world.

Spanish-based organization, Fundación Fernando Pombo (FFP), was shortlisted for its work with doubly vulnerable groups – groups that come from vulnerable backgrounds and also suffer from rare, chronic, serious or impeding diseases, including mental health issues. The nature of their diseases coupled with a pre-existing vulnerability due to poverty, homelessness, gender violence or forced migration, make these groups highly susceptible to the lack of access to healthcare, maltreatment, social exclusion and hate crimes. FFP, in collaboration with international law firm Gomez-Acebo & Pombo, provided pro bono assistance to these groups through clinics, lectures and discussions, both nationally and internationally, to explore how the Spanish health care system can be improved to better protect them. FFP also published three practical guides for lawyers who advise doubly vulnerable patients – a first in Spain.

South Africa was criticized by the ICC after its failure to arrest Sudan’s President, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, when he visited Johannesburg in 2015. Al-Bashir was previously accused of crimes of genocide and war crimes against his people. PHOTO CREDIT:  Jesse B. Awalt

In South Africa, international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright provided pro bono assistance to the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution in a matter regarding access to justice for South Africans, specifically advocating for victims affected by the international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. The firm’s lawyers approached the High Court to challenge the South African Cabinet’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the Rome Statute, which provided protection and held accountable those responsible for such crimes, in October 2016. After the decision was revoked, the Parliament tabled a Bill invoking the same decision, but Norton Rose Fulbright lawyers worked to have this bill withdrawn through written submissions. There have been no further efforts by the South African government to withdraw from the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court to this date.

A group of London-based firms were shortlisted for the Award for Local Pro Bono Impact in a joint nomination for projects carried out in collaboration with the University House Legal Aid Advice Centre in East London. Both projects aimed to assist vulnerable populations in the City’s poorest boroughs. Firms including Dechert; Reed Smith; Ropes & Gray; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Slaughter and May; and White & Case worked on an advocacy-based pro bono program to help individuals fairly access disability benefits provisions after these were abruptly terminated. Their work served to close the justice gap that existed between legal representation and groups in need such as those unable to work due to mental and physical disabilities, long term illness or mental health issues. Separately, the Family Law and Domestic Violence Advice Clinic, launched in Tower Hamlets, set up a weekly drop-in clinic to provide free legal advice to victims of domestic violence. Firms providing assistance included Gibson Dunn; Reed Smith; Ropes & Gray; Shearman & Sterling; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; and Travers Smith. University house serves as a physical base for the Clinic as well as a source of mentoring and supervision for volunteers and, importantly, a connection with the local community.

Special Mention

After the devastating fire that ripped through Grenfell Tower, a residential block in London, Rebecca Greenhalgh (Ashurst) and Felicity Kirk (Ropes & Gray) coordinated an immediate London-wide pro bono response to support North Kensington Law Centre (a community advice organisation based at the foot of the Tower) in its work to support residents affected by the tragedy, setting up advice services, clinics and support networks for those affected. Rebecca and Felicity coordinated with the Law Centre (NKLC) to ascertain where there was a need for assistance, what the most practical pro bono interventions could be, and how to access the most vulnerable. They then recruited a network of London lawyers from more than 30 law firms through the UK Collaborative Plan for Pro Bono to assist the Law Centre in its work with Grenfell survivors, including two lawyers from Allen & Overy who are now working to develop a long-term strategic response.

Dentons represented five individuals facing criminal proceedings relating to their freedom of speech. These included two bloggers, a university professor, and a poet who altered the Polish national anthem in support of refugees. Dentons’ support of these individuals was covered by the Polish media and has created a discussion and a hope for greater involvement in pro bono among Polish firms. It has also sparked a crucial dialogue on the country’s media laws and freedom of expression in general. This work was part of a broader initiative by Dentons’ Warsaw office to establish a strategic litigation team in 2016, with the objective of providing pro bono legal advice in freedom of speech cases.