The conference opened with a keynote speech from George Varughese, the Malaysian Bar President who detailed the initiatives of the Bar in seeking to improve representation for people in Malaysia. As in many parts of Asia there is little difference between pro bono and legal aid as government support for legal assistance is minimal. In Malaysia:
- Every lawyer must go through the Legal Aid scheme to be qualified to practice. 17,000 lawyers must pay RM100 to be involved – it is a ‘pay to play’ system.
- Malaysian Legal Aid does no criminal defence work. The system therefore only works when a client pleads guilty!
The first plenary, which included Nic Patrick from DLA Piper, reminded the audience why lawyers do pro bono in various law firm contexts. Nic said that pro bono must motivate and energise people, there should be no such thing as “compassion fatigue” and we have a shared responsibility to make each other’s lives better.
The conference this year focused strongly on particular areas of prevalent unmet legal need in the region such as the need to represent drug users, victims of human trafficking, people with disabilities, asylum seekers, women and those facing the death penalty. Michael Di Rozario from Corrs in Sydney and Patrick Earle from the Diplomacy Tracing Program at UNSW have been working together on various pro bono projects and they attended the conference together, with Michael talking about Corr’s work in Indigenous rights and Patrick presenting on DTP’s workshops in the region to assist migrant workers.
Interspersed or alongside these sessions were sessions on pro bono practice. Topics included developing and maintaining a pro bono practice, diversification of pro bono options, pro bono culture development, organising and utilising pro bono roundtables, monitoring and evaluation of Pro Bono Impact and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and collaborative pro bono models.
I facilitated and presented the plenary session on collaborative pro bono models with Jessica Hatherall, CEO of the Justice Centre, Hong Kong and Leonard Lee, CEO of the Community Justice Centre, Singapore that produced a word map created by the audience reflecting their ideas on better ways to collaborate.