For Public Benefit: Pro Bono Publico
“Pro bono” is a commonly used concept among lawyers and non-governmental organizations. However, it is not widely known in the business world and among the public. Despite being highly significant to secure the right to a fair trial, the concept has only recently begun to emerge in Turkey, whereas in other developed nations it is widely used. Pro bono is the short version of the Latin phrase “pro bono publico”, meaning “for the benefit of the public”. In terms of the legal profession, it refers to legal services voluntarily provided by attorneys free of charge at professional standards for the public benefit.
Pro bono stems from the idea of equal access to justice and legal representation. Attorneys, considering their significant role in society and the privileged position they have in matters of justice, are obligated to promote equal access to justice and to address the needs of underprivileged individuals of society. Pro bono legal services are even more significant especially if matters of public interest would not otherwise receive attention because of the absence of pro bono attorneys. Thus, it is crucial for attorneys to contribute to pro bono work to ensure these matters have equal access to justice.
Pro bono legal services are provided by attorneys without any fee. However, not every legal service provided free of charge is pro bono. For legal work to be defined as pro bono, it must have a basis in social responsibility and be performed for the public benefit. Hence, the beneficiaries of pro bono work must be individuals experiencing financial difficulty and in need of legal assistance as well as individuals or organizations whose legal issues are of public interest, or charities, communities or other non-profit organizations working for the public good. If an attorney represents his or her relative at court free of charge, for example, this would not count as pro bono work.
The effective application of pro bono legal services requires contributions from all actors in the legal profession, including bar associations. Bar associations also provide legal assistance to people otherwise unable to afford legal representation and access to the court system but pro bono work differs from the legal aid provided by bar associations. Bar associations provide legal aid according to the Regulation on Legal Assistance issued by the Turkish Bar Association and the Turkish Advocacy Law. Attorneys providing such legal assistance are paid by bar associations. Unlike legal aid, pro bono work is not regulated in detail under Turkish laws yet. Although Turkish laws provide for the implementation of a minimum fee tariff for attorneys, the Turkish Advocacy Law permits attorneys to provide legal services free of charge by notifying bar associations.
Pro bono is a well-known and respected concept in the Anglo-Saxon law system and widely applies in various countries, especially in the U.S. where the legal services are institutionalized. The concept gained prominence when President John F. Kennedy urged lawyers to defend civil rights before the courts and created The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an organization summoning both private attorneys and firms for pro bono work, taking on cases and educating the public in legal matters.
Following that, conducting pro bono work became a must for attorneys. Currently, every attorney registered to the New York Bar Association must perform a minimum of 50 hours of pro bono work to persons of limited means or charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental and educational organizations. In Europe, pro bono gained significance and respect in the 1990s with the emergence of powerful non-governmental organizations and the global expansion of U.S. and UK law firms, setting mandatory rules on the application of pro bono work. Currently, global law firms in many countries set mandatory pro bono work hours for its attorneys. Hence, not only do underprivileged people have the opportunity to receive legal support, but also attorneys themselves have the opportunity to engage with underprivileged people and gain the satisfaction of having helped solve social problems.
It is crucial for civil entities to take initiatives to promote pro bono activities as pro bono work is yet to be formalized in Turkey, independent of official authorities. As an example, the Legal Clinic and Pro Bono Legal Service Support Web operating under Istanbul Bilgi University is a milestone for the development of pro bono work in Turkey. This promising support web connects people and organizations in need of legal services with attorneys volunteering for pro bono work. We hope, with the support of bar associations, more attorneys will contribute to pro bono activities in the future.
The Turkish Constitution, in compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, emphasizes the right to a fair trial for each individual regardless of religious, linguistic, ethnic, or sexual preferences. Accordingly, it is the government’s duty to ensure equal access to justice and legal representation, together with the significant contribution of all actors in the legal profession. We hope an efficient and proactive structure for attorneys to execute pro bono work will be established in the near future, without state intervention into the civil nature of pro bono work.
DR. UMUT KOLCUOGLU
MANAGİNG PARTNER KOLCUOGLU DEMIRKAN KOCAKLİ
ATTORNEYS AT LAW