“Pro bono” comes from the Latin phrase “pro bono publico” which means “for the public good”. In the legal context it generally means the provision of legal services on a free or significantly reduced fee basis, with no expectation of a commercial return.
While there is no universally accepted definition of what is meant by “pro bono”, the Centre’s definition is widely accepted in Australia, with 95 percent of the respondents to the Fourth National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey indicating that they use this definition.
The Australian Pro Bono Centre’s Definition of Pro Bono
Giving legal assistance for free or at a substantially reduced fee to:-
individuals who can demonstrate a need for legal assistance but cannot obtain Legal Aid or otherwise access the legal system without incurring significant financial hardship; or
individuals or organisations whose matter raises an issue of public interest which would not otherwise be pursued; or
charities or other non-profit organisations which work on behalf of low income or disadvantaged members of the community or for the public good;
Conducting law reform and policy work on issues affecting low income or disadvantaged members of the community, or on issues of public interest;
Participating in the provision of free community legal education on issues affecting low income or disadvantaged members of the community or on issues of public interest; or
Providing a lawyer on secondment at a community organisation (including a community legal organisation) or at a referral service provider such as a Public Interest Law Clearing House.
The following is NOT regarded as pro bono work for the purposes of this statement:
giving legal assistance to any person for free or at a reduced fee without reference to whether he/she can afford to pay for that legal assistance or whether his/her case raises an issue of public interest;
free first consultations with clients who are otherwise billed at a firm’s normal rates;
legal assistance provided under a grant of legal assistance from Legal Aid;
contingency fee arrangements or other speculative work which is undertaken with a commercial expectation of a fee;
the sponsorship of cultural and sporting events, work undertaken for business development and other marketing opportunities; or
time spent by lawyers sitting on the board of a community organisation (including a community legal organisation) or a charity.
For guidance on calculating pro bono hours for the purpose of the Target please refer to our Guidance Notes.
Why Define Pro Bono?
The Centre’s definition of pro bono is consistent with the Law Council of Australia’s definition (see Other Definitions of Pro Bono) but is specific about certain activities that were previously considered “grey areas”. It was considered necessary to be specific about these issues to enhance Target and Survey data and provide leadership on “definitional fringe” issues such as:
community service work by lawyers
sitting on boards
work for sporting organisations
work done without any reference to the capacity of a pro bono client to pay for pro bono services.
For a useful discussion of the pros and cons of broad and narrow definitions of “pro bono” see the paper presented by Esther Lardent, Chief Executive Officer of the US Pro Bono Institute, at Australia’s Second National Pro Bono Conference held in October 2003 titled, Defining and Quantifying Pro Bono: Pros and Cons.
Other Definitions of Pro Bono
While the Centre’s definition is most widely accepted in Australia, a number of other organisations have created their own definitions, including the Law Council of Australia, the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW (formerly the Law Foundation of NSW) and the Victorian Government Legal Services Panel.