“I think a lot of people get into the law for altruistic reasons,” he says, “and the fight for social justice is a calling that a lot of solicitors have.”
When he looks for help for the cash-strapped non-profit centre, he finds he is pushing an open door, most of the time. Both big and small law firms are willing to help.
Gary has seen an escalation in crime and social problems in Ballymun as redevelopment funds have dried up.
“A lot of people that come through our door are under severe stress and pressure, through poverty. There are multiple social issues, such as drugs and gang turf wars. There has to be some sort of correlation between reducing the redevelopment funding and the rise in difficulties. Where supports are withdrawn from communities, it can create a vacuum,” he says.
All Law Society members already can financially assist the Ballymun centre’s work by ticking the box on the form when renewing their practising certs. “We are operating on a shoestring, but we also get very good practical support from the Law Library as well,” Gary says.
He questions why lawyers have a money-grabbing reputation, since pro bono work is almost built into the legal profession’s DNA.
The attitude to pro bono work is also changing with growing globalisation, he believes.
The philanthropic reflex of US-based businesses, and thereby their multinational branches, has changed the charitable culture in Ireland. Any law firm doing business with a US multinational may now have to produce their corporate social responsibility programme for inspection, Gary says.
Multinationals will have definite ideas about which type of company they want to do business with, and they will be looking for a ‘values-match’ before signing contracts.
Another key factor is that pro bono hours now count as ‘billable’ in some leading firms, such as Arthur Cox and A&L Goodbody. Gary describes this as ‘revolutionary’, because it stabilises fee-earner pressure to reach income targets.
With these changes, there is a shift away from seeing charitable work as ‘shaking a bucket’, to helping people practically by offering experience and expertise.
The very obvious way for law firms to help the disadvantaged is to provide their expertise, for instance, in the area of housing or social welfare.
He believes that many socially engaged students of the 1970s and 1980s are now in positions of power in Irish society and also in law firms, and this is having a ripple effect.
Give me the child
Gary himself says he always had a strong sense of fairness and of what is right and wrong.
Partly schooled by the Jesuits, Gary Lee says he deeply admires their ethos and their collective contribution to Irish society generally.
He was willing to take a considerable cut in income by leaving private practice to work full-time in community law for the past two years.
Was that a difficult decision?
“No,” he answers definitively. “This is where I need to be, and this is what I want to be doing.”
The financial rewards may be less but, on a daily basis, Ballymun clients express a profound sense of gratitude for the help they get.
“In a lot of cases, people just have nobody to listen to them, and the circumstances that they find themselves in are absolutely dire. There is injustice all around here and, more often than not, it is the State that’s perpetrating that injustice,” he says. “This law centre, and the other eight independent law centres, can make a difference – but it’s just a drop in the ocean compared to the services that people need.”
Lee is also active in the disability sector and chairs the Disability Federation of Ireland (DFI). He is also a member of the Law Society’s Human Rights Committee.
As a UCD law student, he witnessed a wheelchair-using friend refused entry to a city-centre bar one evening, despite no practical access difficulty.
And Gary was told: “She can’t come in,” while the bouncer refused to address the wheelchair user directly.
“I felt a deep sense of injustice on her behalf,” he says, “but now, I think that there are plenty of green shoots there and an engagement with, for instance, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”
He is deeply critical of the withdrawal of personal support once education is completed by a person with disability. “My friends with disability say they are the best-educated and best-trained sector in society, but the State won’t facilitate them in actually getting to work.”
There should be a legal right to personal assistance, Gary believes, though assisted technology has already massively improved personal autonomy. “It has certainly made it far easier now to accommodate people with disability to get into the workplace,” he says.
It’s a matter of educating employers and society as a whole, he says, citing the 24-hour notice that must be given by a wheelchair-user to get on Dublin’s Dart system.
Making them listen
In taking activist equality cases around disability, Gary Lee says that success may ultimately lie in bringing decision-makers into the room and making them listen.
DFI is also conducting research with DCU about the inappropriate placement of younger people in nursing homes. This happens because the finance for nursing-home care is on a statutory footing, while personal assistance packages (to remain at home) are not.
If a young person with disability is surrounded by sick and dying fellow-patients and is unable to form lasting friendships, their mental health suffers.
“We are looking at legal angles in relation to this,” Gary says, and this work is being done in tandem with one of the bigger law firms. “There is a huge opportunity there to team up with law firms that want to contribute.”
Irish people want to correct injustices and, in the disability sector, there is a slow realisation that difficulties are not intrinsic to the person. “It’s society that creates barriers that prevent people from being fully part of it. In the past, we warehoused people – but society is beginning to look at disability in a different way.”
As a chairman of Mental Health Commission tribunals, he sees positive changes. “When officials give reasons that affect people’s lives, you see reasons for those decisions far more frequently now than in the past. I see a shift, over the last five years or so, of thoughtful reasons being given for decisions. There is more of a realisation that decisions affect real-life people, and there is more awareness of looking at things from a human-rights perspective.” he says.