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The number of lawyers undertaking pro bono work increased in the 2017-2018 financial year, but the total number of hours those lawyers spent on pro bono matters fell from the previous year, according to data released in October by the Australian Pro Bono Centre (APBC).

The centre’s 11th Annual Performance Report on the Australian Pro Bono Target noted that 18 out of 37 large firms had reported a result that was down on their previous year’s total, while 17 firms reported an increase. Overall, 12,051 Australian lawyers provided a total 414,843 hours of pro bono legal services in the 2017-2018 financial year. This was 1.3 per cent fewer hours than the 420,195 reported in the 2016-2017 financial year.

“Looking at the results from the last few years, we seem to have reached a plateau,” said APBC CEO John Corker.

“Increasing competition in the legal services market may be exerting a downward trend on available resources, but pro bono performance is about commitment. And hours are just part of the story. The process efficiencies involved, and the client outcomes achieved continue to be impressive.”

The Australian Pro Bono Target was devised and announced in consultation with Australia’s largest law firms in 2007. Target signatories agreed to work towards a target of 35 hours of pro bono work per lawyer per year. Results over the past 11 years have been on an upward trend, but this year’s report marks the first downturn. Twenty-one of the 37 participating firms reported falling short of the target, compared to 20 of 39 last year.

Corker urged firms that were consistently falling short of the target to review their programs against the centre’s Best Practice Guide, and to work with the centre to achieve improvements. “Today, more than ever, it is vital that lawyers take a leading role in standing up for the rule of law, challenging injustice and helping the most disadvantaged individuals through pro bono legal service,” he said.