INTERVIEW: Edwin Rekosh founded PILnet, the global network for public interest law as a small initiative to support the work of human rights groups in Central and Eastern Europe. More than 15 years later, PILnet continues with this work, but on a global scale. One of PILnet’s primary objectives is the development of a global pro bono community in support of organisations and individuals serving the public good. PILnet’s European Pro Bono Forum: Why London, Why Now? takes places November 5 to 7.
Each year PILnet convenes Europe’s largest event for lawyers, NGOs, bar associations, academics and students interested in pro bono legal work – PILnet’s annual European Pro Bono Forum. Past forums have played a major role in building support for pro bono across the continent and helped develop strategies and methods for expanding the sector.
In recent years pro bono practice has been on the rise in Europe where organisations such as PILnet are linking individuals and NGOs in need of legal assistance with lawyers and law firms who want to volunteer their legal skills to help, raising the question ‘what is the role of PILnet’s Forum now?’
‘It’s true that lawyers and firms have become more willing to undertake pro bono work,’ explains Edwin Rekosh, ‘However, many today still lack a direct connection to the community, the know-how and other forms of coordination needed to make pro bono more impactful. Furthermore, there are still many countries in Europe, and throughout the world, where pro bono is still a developing concept.’
‘In the meantime, the need for pro bono is growing rapidly as state-funded services come under increasing financial pressure,’ Rekosh continues, suggesting a hard look at pro bono practice is in order. ‘We need to ask difficult questions about whether pro bono practice can be adapted to these new realities and if so, how?’
The forum shifts locations each year, weaving its way over the last eight years from Budapest, Berlin and Warsaw, to Madrid and Paris, and now, from 5-7 November 2014 to London.
The UK has long proven to be a leader in pro bono practice. However, its recent legal aid cuts have the legal community questioning the future and wondering about the role of pro bono. ‘London may be a perfect setting to explore some of today’s more difficult questions regarding pro bono practice in Europe,’ suggests Rekosh. ‘Access to justice is under greater threat than at any time since the introduction of the legal aid system in 1949. Areas of law covered by legal aid have been slashed and the eligibility rules have been tightened. The result is a bigger pool of people that cannot afford the legal help they need and a justice system drifting toward becoming a luxury reserved for the upper echelons of society. All of this poses what is possibly the biggest challenge the U.K. pro bono community has ever faced,’ warns Mr Rekosh. ‘The demand is huge, the need is urgent, and the role of pro bono lawyers is critical.’
In 2013, the UK parliament passed the Legal Aid, Punishment and Offenders Act, otherwise knows as LASPO, which introduced drastic cuts (£350m per year) to legal aid in England and Wales. As a result of these cuts, Law Centres across the country have closed their doors, leaving low-income families unable to access legal representation.
Ed Rekosh believes that collaboration is the best way forward: ‘The Forum is an opportunity to innovate at the organisational level; in large part this is the impetus behind the entire event. The time is ripe for the UK pro bono community to regroup and to have a frank and inclusive discussion on what role pro bono can and should play in meeting access to justice needs, and the Forum is where that can happen. It allows practitioners from diverse backgrounds and multiple country contexts to share institutional knowledge and consider challenging ideas.’
‘The Forum agenda includes numerous workshops and sessions that provide space for these discussions, as well as less formal opportunities to connect with colleagues struggling with the same issues across Europe and abroad. Data protection, LGBTI rights, refugee rights, NGOs—their very existence—are under threat right here in Europe, and pro bono assistance can play a role. Participants will get to explore models that amplify our efforts, and find ways of working together locally and internationally to have the greatest, most effective impact through pro bono.’
The impact of PILnet’s European Pro Bono Forum has been seen across the continent. In 2007, when the first Forum was held, pro bono was not institutionalised to any significant degree in Continental Europe. Each year, since then, Forum attendance has grown, representing a burgeoning community of individuals and organizations committed to developing new resources to ensure access to justice.
‘As the pro bono movement takes root around the world, London’s local pro bono community has a great deal of expertise, best practices, and examples to share with its European counterparts. At the same time, the Forum offers U.K. practitioners the chance to engage in a lively and creative exchange with pro bono innovators from a wide variety of jurisdictions to address today’s critical social justice issues.’
You can find out more about the 2014 European Pro Bono Forum by visiting probonoforum.eu.
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