By -

Despite a global pandemic, lockdowns and health and economic crises, lawyers across Australia have rallied to set a new record in 2021 of pro bono legal work hours.

The 14th Annual Performance Report of the National Pro Bono Target was published in October and reports that Australian lawyers contributed a whopping 641,996 hours of pro bono legal work in the 2021 financial year. This represents an increase of 16 per cent since 2020, a 36 per cent rise from 2019, and is the highest number of pro bono hours ever reported by signatories to the Target.

“The start to the 2020s will go down as one of the most turbulent periods in living memory, but it will also be remembered for how lawyers significantly escalated their efforts to support the most vulnerable members of our community. In Australia, the profession’s focus has been on assisting those affected by the pandemic and a number of natural disasters”, said Gabriela Christian-Hare, CEO of the Australian Pro Bono Centre.

The National Pro Bono Target is a voluntary scheme that invites law firms, solicitors, barristers, in-house legal teams and individual in-house lawyers to commit to providing at least 35 hours of pro bono legal services per lawyer per year – the equivalent of seven hours per day across a five-day working week. In-house teams commit to a slightly lower target of 20 hours per lawyer per year.

For the first time, the Centre’s report offered a state-by-state breakdown of hours contributed by lawyers in each jurisdiction around Australia. It found “a significant majority” of the pro bono work was performed by solicitors in NSW (44 per cent) and Victoria (32 per cent). The report notes that this correlates somewhat with the proportion of the Australian population in those jurisdictions, but there was opportunity for growth in other states and territories. Australian Census data reveals NSW is home to about 32 per cent of the national population, and Victoria is 26 per cent.

Christian-Hare said large law firms had contributed major boosts to the pro bono hours achieved through 2021, as well as individual solicitors and barristers who had signed up to the Target for the first time and were devoting personal time to advise and represent disadvantaged individuals and community organisations.

However, the Centre’s Chair, Phillip Cornwell, noted “it is a shame that quite a few firms, including large firms, including large firms, are falling well short of the Target, and missing out on the considerable benefits that flow from undertaking pro bono work”.

“I encourage those firms to redouble their efforts, lest their clients may come to doubt whether these firms are in fact using their ‘best endeavours’ to achieve the Target. The Centre stands ready to help,” he said.