A matchmaker for the cause of social justice
The Public Interest Law Alliance helps NGOs by pairing them with free legal muscle
At the Asylum Early Advice Training Course at A&L Goodbody were, from left, Dr Ciara Smyth from the School of Law at NUI Galway, Jacqueline Kelly, managing solicitor at the Irish Refugee Council Law Centre, Eamonn Conlon, partner at A&L Goodbody, and Maeve Regan, former legal officer of the Public Interest Law Alliance but now managing solicitor of Mercy Law Resource Centre
Picture yourself arriving in a strange country, desperately seeking refuge from persecution. You are instantly faced with strange paperwork in a strange language that will help determine the next phase of your life. Imagine you are in a room surrounded by uniformed officials you don’t trust and nobody can help you.
Since 2008, Pila, the Public Interest Law Alliance, has been serving the needs of various non-governmental organisations (NGOs), whether helping individuals in desperate circumstances or, more broadly, through legislative reform designed to improve the lot of sections of society.
An offshoot of the Free Legal Advice Centres, Pila is an unassuming organisation that commands a heavyweight database of barristers and solicitors prepared to answer the call of various organisations with substantial legal know-how.
This is the “corporately responsible” theatre of pro-bono legal work, a world that by necessity is cloaked in a certain degree of confidentiality and, therefore, one that often goes overlooked.
“It [Pila] was a kind of bridge between organisations that are working to advance the public interest and the lawyers who are interested in advancing the public interest,” says Flac director general Noeline Blackwell. “We are a broker; we are a matchmaker.”
As a result of the organisation’s partnership with the Irish Refugee Council Law Centre, for instance, many of the asylum seekers who sit in those strange rooms, faced with strange paperwork, are seeing the benefit.
The Irish Refugee Council Law Centre was established in 2012. Its solicitors (there are just two, as well as two legal officers) give two-hour consultations to applicants before their formal interview with the Office of the Refugee Application Commissioner, the body that will ultimately decide their fate.
This allows them to focus on their own application as opposed to simply getting to grips with the process, and the solicitors help them draw up personal statements outlining their stories and experiences.
The centre has focused on particularly difficult cases – victims of torture and trafficking and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community – and has enjoyed a healthy success rate of over 50 per cent of its cases.
It was with the help of Pila that the council law centre found its principal partner, A&L Goodbody solicitors, which was on the lookout for worthwhile pro-bono work in the field of public interest.
“This is a specific unmet legal need: early intervention for vulnerable applicants,” says Jacki Kelly, managing solicitor at the Law Centre.
“Most people don’t have legal advice when completing the [asylum] questionnaire. They will have general advice but not specific advice on their own case.
“It’s quite a long questionnaire; there are 48 questions and they might not be able to understand them – and they might be afraid to be open on paper.
“The system itself is quite complex and people are dealing with having to come to a new country and to deal with this process on their own. We think it makes sense that they should be helped.”
There was an imperative for the centre’s initial formation: in 2010 just 1.3 per cent of asylum seekers achieved “first instance recognition” of their plight. Today, for various reasons, that has increased to about 14 per cent.
Last February A&L Goodbody met up with the Law Centre, each looking to expand on its work in the area. Twenty-eight solicitors volunteered for training through the Irish Refugee Council Law Centre and last August they received their first referral case in what is hoped will mark the start of a considerable step-up in the level of assistance on offer.
Eamonn Conlon, a partner at A&L Goodbody who is involved in the project, says that while his firm already carries out pro-bono work, much of it is similar to what they do for commercial clients. This time they were keen for something different.
“We were looking to broaden that and go beyond the NGO to their service users,” he told The Irish Times from Warsaw in Poland where he was attending the European Pro Bono Forum.
“We were looking for an area where there was legal need and where we would be able to get our people who won’t necessarily be trained in the area to get trained and to provide an area of specialism.”
In the last year alone, Goodbody has had 46 pro-bono clients, 12 of which were NGOs. Some 120 solicitors contributed to about €380,000 worth of free legal muscle.
“Many law graduates would want to work in an environment where there is an awareness of the wider community and a participation in the wider community to the benefit of the wider community,” says Conlon. “The primary reason for doing pro bono work is that we think that lawyers have a responsibility to put their skills to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to legal services.
“It is [also] something that many lawyers across the firm find interesting, that they can get involved in and that is different and provides different challenges. It is an opportunity to make a difference for people.”
Pila, the facilitator, was born out of a Flac conference in 2005. Blackwell says that today, more than 60 NGOs have availed of the service with solicitors working toward improving the public good, social justice or human rights.
“What we found [at that initial conference] was a huge enthusiasm in a bunch of lawyers; a substantial number of lawyers want to be involved in good work, good legal work,” she adds.
“We thought there is something here; there is something in bringing these people together in an alliance.
“They don’t operate in a vacuum – they operate in human life as well and part of the give-back to the community in general is that they have a corporate responsibility.”
And it’s not just firms. Individual lawyers are also invited to participate.
In 2013, with ongoing delays in drafting legislation for the full recognition of the gender identity of transgender people, barrister David Dodd, who specialises in both the drafting and interpreting of legislation, was contacted by Pila.
Together with the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (Teni), Flac senior solicitor Michael Farrell and the independent Senator Katherine Zappone, a draft bill was set out. Teni communicated their ideas and the legal experts went about putting it into legislative language.
“Obviously Pila provide a very helpful go-between in that they provide everything beforehand,” Dodd says. “They are solicitors and they provide a fully prepared brief and so we just have to draft the bill.”
This a good example of why the legal expertise is so crucial; groups fighting for change may have the answers, but they can’t necessarily turn them into something lawmakers can relate to.
It is a paradox Dodd puts succinctly: “It’s a bit like saying I want a house with four bedrooms and two bathrooms but that doesn’t make you an architect.
“You can imagine people in the transgender community – they know where they want to go to, it’s how to get there. It is a big part of the Irish bar to assist worthwhile endeavours, charitable organisations and NGOs when they need and ask for help. There is a huge take-up and it’s largely because Pila are so well organised.”
And so, with scores of projects and NGOs and countless numbers of lawyers ready to do their bit, what is it exactly that is so alluring about pro-bono work?
Without it, says Dodd, “it wouldn’t get done and it wouldn’t be as effective. You would get groups that are already marginalised being even further marginalised from a process of legal and social change.
“If there is a group of people trying to change society and they can’t get there without your help, then help them out.”