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Fair Representation for All

Resource type: News

Mail & Guardian Online | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Fiona MacLeod

Dr Ivan May Memorial Award

When horse-riding instructor and stable manager Gary Allpass won his legal case ­earlier this year for being unfairly dismissed because he is ­HIV-positive, he set an important precedent for others in a similar position. His legal representation was arranged by ProBono.Org, a ­non-profit organisation that assists lawyers to volunteer their time and expertise to individuals and ­communities who cannot afford representation. 

“The case was spotted when Allpass attended one of our ­regular legal clinics, where pro bono ­lawyers assist clients with ­specialised ­problems such as HIV/Aids. It ended up becoming a high-impact case that pushed the frontiers of the law ­forward and at the same time gave him access to justice,” said Erica Emdon, ProBono.Org’s advancement director. 

The Labour Court in Johannesburg ordered his employer, Mooikloof Estates, to pay Allpass a year’s salary and legal costs for dismissing him despite the fact that he was in good health and able to do his job. Under the slogan “The best of the legal profession serving society for good”, ProBono.Org tackles legal matters that have a public-interest component. 

Head quartered in the historic women’s jail at Constitution Hill, it has made great progress in promoting the constitutional rights of women and children by providing access to quality legal services. “ProBono.Org was established with the objective of making access to justice real for the poor and ­marginalised by using the private legal profession to provide legal ­services pro bono,” Emdon said. 

The organisation is the only one of its kind in the country and was ­initiated after a pilot study, funded by United States-based the Atlantic Philanthropies, indicated that the need for legal assistance for the poor was far greater than the ­availability of free legal services provided by existing legal non-governmental organisations such as the Legal Resources Centre, Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid South Africa. “The Constitution provides that everyone should have legal ­representation, but the needs are huge and there are gaps, particularly in civil matters,” Emdon said. 

ProBono.Org started with about 30 attorneys in October 2006 and now has more than 1 500 attorneys on its pro bono panel, as well as access to more than 800 advocates. The ­number of attorneys firms involved has grown from seven to more than 90 in five years. In response to its growing client base — in 2006 it opened 150 client files; last year 1 800 files were opened in Johannesburg alone — the organisation recently set up a branch in Durban. It runs help desks at various magistrate’s courts in Gauteng, community advice offices in Limpopo, North West and the Vaal Triangle and a labour law clinic with the South African Society for Labour Law in Johannesburg. 

“We have been able to grow the number of people we assist in such a short time because we constantly initiate new projects and clinics to attract pro bono lawyers. Our organisation has a unique multiplier effect,” Emdon said. It recruits attorneys through their firms, advocates through different bar councils and mediators and other professionals through their associations. Since the organisation was ­established, several law societies in different parts of South Africa have introduced compulsory pro bono rules, in terms of which private ­attorneys are compelled to perform 24 pro bono hours a year. 

Emdon said ProBono.Org’s role is to assist the attorneys to find cases, to screen cases for them, define the legal issues and develop pro bono projects for them. “We try to provide projects for lawyers that suit their time ­constraints and interests. As a result, private lawyers find that they are being exposed to the lives of ­ordinary people, which is ­transforming them. “They are leaving the boardrooms of their Sandton offices and spending time in community halls dispensing advice and listening to the stories and experiences of the poor.” 

One firm has committed its ­attorneys to run a wills project in community halls and hospices every month, where they provide ­education and advice on estate planning and drafting wills. “This has a huge impact on ­children, as Aids deaths have increased the number of Aids orphans without guardians. Drafting a will enables a parent to stipulate who should be the guardian in the case of death, which obviates the need for an expensive, slow guardianship application in the courts.” 

Another project enables private lawyers to help Zimbabweans to sort out their legal status in South Africa. The lawyers have also participated in Women’s Day legal clinics. Last November 60 women from Orange Farm were bused to the Vereeniging Magistrate’s Court to get legal assistance during the 16 days of ­activism campaign. ProBono.Org works with non-governmental and community-based organisations to identify legal priorities, Emdon said. 

“The right not to be unfairly dismissed or discriminated against is frequently violated in the workplace. The right to legal representation in civil matters is paramount so that there are level playing fields. “The right to dignity, access to services and courts and the ability not to be prejudiced owing to one’s religion, sexual orientation or gender are rights we promote through our pro bono lawyers.” 

The organisation is funded mainly by the Atlantic Philanthropies and seven large South African law firms that sit on the board, with the Johannesburg Bar Council. Other funders include the Open Society Foundation, Raith Foundation, Elma Philanthropies and various smaller donors. At least 80% of its clients are African, 65% are women and 50% of its cases affect children. All ­clients have to earn less than R7 000 a month and have assets worth less than R350 000. 

Social philanthropist Dr Ivan May was a founding director of ProBono.Org and helped the organisation secure its offices at Constitution Hill. A long-serving member of the Investing in the Future judging panel, May died on December 31 2010. ProBono.Org was selected to receive the inaugural award in his honour because the organisation’s raison d’être is founded on giving back to society, which May personified. It was chosen not only because it gives a voice to the poor and helps them to realise their rights, but also for the role it has already played in transforming society as a whole and the potential it has to carry on doing so.

Honouring innovation in social enperprise
There were a record 78 entries in this year’s Investing in the Future and Drivers of Change awards, each project providing an insight into the innovations of social enterprise in times of uncertainty. As the Southern Africa Trust’s Neville Gabriel puts it on page nine, these projects are “leading the change they want to see, rather than reacting to new conditions in which they happen to find themselves. They show us the results that can be achieved through visionary and inclusive approaches.” 

The winners and finalists of the awards were fêted at a gala -banquet on November 3, hosted by the Mail & Guardian and the Southern Africa Trust. The difficult job of selecting the winners and finalists was undertaken by a panel of experts in the field of social development. 

Chaired by corporate social activist Judi Nokwedi, the panel consisted of the Southern Africa Trust’s Neville Gabriel and Shirley Moulder; Tshikululu Social Investments chief executive Tracey Henry; Dr Shereen Usdin, founding member and executive at the Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication; chief -executive of the Sekunjalo Group, Dr Iqbal Survé; and director of Verge Management Services, Glenda White.

Now in their 22nd year, the Mail & Guardian Investing in the Future Awards went into partnership with the Southern Africa Trust’s Drivers of Change awards in 2006. 

The awards have run side by side for five years, but it was decided to merge two categories this year — business and civil society — to broaden their reach and to cut down on duplication. The record number of entries in both categories supported the decision. 

All the winners and finalists are celebrated in this special annual supplement in the Mail & Guardian newspaper. By leading the change, they give hope for the future.

ProBono.Org is an Atlantic grantee.

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