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Legal pro bono work can enable strategic change
Eilis Barry of FLAC and Gemma McLoughlin Burke of Bar of Ireland Voluntary Assistance Programme Pic:Cian Redmond

17 Jun 2024 / law society Print

Legal pro bono work can enable strategic change

An event to mark Pro Bono Week at the Law Society (13 June) has heard that such gratis work by lawyers can enable access to rights that have been denied.

Chair Mr Justice Liam Kennedy of the High Court told the gathering that change could only be enacted through a process of complaint followed by action.

Legally indefensible

“Often, what is unacceptable may be legally indefensible, but will continue until someone challenges it,” he said.

Bring legal challenges and be prepared to carry them through, he advised attendees, who included activists who made pitches to the lawyers present to back their causes on a pro bono basis.

Lawyers could take a strategic approach to change, using their knowledge and expertise, he continued.

Knowledge was power, and lawyers had status in society and a privileged position to promote causes and create change, he added.

The Law Society event was part of celebrating the achievements of pro bono work, Mr Justice Kennedy said.

The overwhelming majority of Law Society members chose to add to their practising certificate fee by voluntarily donating to pro bono endeavours at renewal time each year, he said.

Justice ecosystem

Law Society President Barry MacCarthy said that pro bono work was a central part of the legal ecosystem and played an important role in supporting access to justice.

“It is important to recognise the value of this work and celebrate legal professionals who have the means and capacity to volunteer their skills and knowledge.

"Initiatives like Pro Bono Week help recognise and underpin the importance of this work, facilitate future pro bono partnerships, and help advance access to justice.”

Mr Justice Kennedy moderated a discussion focused on the impact and benefit of lawyers volunteering their time and skill.

In 2023, the legal community in Ireland reported more than 40,000 hours of pro bono work.

Pro bono work was undertaken on a variety of initiatives such as:

  • Supporting adults with Down Syndrome in securing employment,
  • Advocating for victims of sexual violence,
  • Operation of free legal advice centres, and
  • Supporting unaccompanied refugee children with family reunification.


Eilis Barry of FLAC told the event that it was heartening that the work of the Public Interest Law Alliance (PILA) was now being mainstreamed.

She said that there was a cohort of barristers who took on pro bono work, but there was also room for more to get involved.

Michelle Drury of Irish Rule of Law International (IRLI) said that pro bono work made their work in the justice arena possible, such as high-quality commercial legal training for 100 lawyers in Africa.

Mr Justice Kennedy said that the rule of law was under threat in many jurisdictions, and Irish lawyers should do what they could to shore it up.


John Lunney of the Law Society explained that Street Law was a public legal-education initiative from which legal trainees gained a huge amount.

Street Law training had been delivered to 14 DEIS schools in recent months and the programme had over 100 Law School applicants this academic year, he said.

“It’s not just good experience; trainees get huge skills from it,” Lunney stated.

Street Law participants were more likely to do pro bono work in future, he said, and a total of 400 trainees had now gone through it.

Gemma McLoughlin Burke of the Bar of Ireland Voluntary Assistance Programme explained how it provided access to free barrister services to a wide variety of charities.

At the event, PILA facilitated a platform for NGOs to pitch to receive pro bono legal services from the attending legal practitioners in support of their causes.

In Ireland, Pro Bono Week is led by PILA and a committee made up of representatives from A&L Goodbody LLP, Arthur Cox LLP, DLA Piper Ireland LLP, Matheson LLP, McCann FitzGerald LLP, Mason Hayes & Curran LLP, Philip Lee LLP.

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