In an effort to create a pro bono culture within a state, and improve the relationship between the courts, the state bar, local communities, and legal aid providers, several states have established court pro bono committees. These committees are established in judicial districts so the pro bono needs of each community can best be addressed. Not only are local courts more aware of their own communities' legal needs, but they are more familiar with local legal services providers, attorneys and the legal services already being offered. Judicial leadership at a local level is also important in that it sets an example for attorneys of the importance of participating in pro bono activities and fulfilling one's professional responsibility to perform pro bono legal service.
The creation of local pro bono committees is often a part of a larger adoption of a state pro bono plan. Although the general rationale for development of these plans is similar across states, the structure and operations of the plans somewhat vary. In order to best describe the manner in which these plans operate and how the local pro bono committees fit into their overall structure, key elements of each state plan will be described below.
On October 1, 1993, the Florida Supreme Court adopted an extensive amendment to the Rules of Professional Conduct. The amendments were to Rule 4-6 Public Service and were effective on October 1, 1993. One of the new rules adopted, 4-6.5, established the voluntary pro bono plan, which described the responsibilities of the Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Service, and summarized the role of the circuit pro bono committees. The purpose of the voluntary pro bono attorney plan was to increase the availability of legal services to the poor. Key provisions of the plan are described below.
Voluntary Pro Bono Plan
A Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Service was appointed to review reports and pro bono plans from circuit court committees and submit its own annual report on these local activities. Circuit Pro Bono Committees were created in each of the judicial districts of Florida, responsible for:
- creating circuit pro bono plans
- implementing the plans and monitoring their results
- submitting an annual report to the Florida Bar standing committee
- using existing legal assistance and pro bono program resources to implement circuit pro bono plans
- encouraging more lawyers to participate in pro bono activities by providing support and education services including: providing intake, matching cases with attorneys, legal education and training, malpractice insurance, recognition of volunteers, etc.
A list of pro bono service opportunities were suggested including representation of clients, interviewing, participation in pro se clinics and policy advocacy.
The Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) launched Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committees to, "increase equal access to justice by promoting and enhancing pro bono legal services withing a specific judicial circuit." The pro bono committees are responsible for:
- Identifying, raising awareness of the need for, and reducing barriers to providing free or low-cost legal services;
- Promoting pro bono opportunities
- Recruiting attorneys and legal professionals to participate in pro bono
- "identifying gaps in the delivery of legal services to low-income individuals and families and developing innovative approaches to filling those gaps through pro bono"; and
- "Recognizing the pro bono contributions of attorneys and legal professionals."
Judicial Circuit Committees include judges, and pro bono leaders from law firms, corporations, bar associations, and public interest organizations.
Indiana adopted Rule 6.6 of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct in October 1997 with the most recent amendments effective in May 2016. The purpose of the initial plan was to promote equal access to justice by creating and promoting opportunities for attorneys to provide pro bono legal services to the poor.
The May 2016 amendments to Rule 6.6 created the Coalition for Court Access. The purpose of the Coalition is to, “act as a legal aid organization that develops and implements a statewide plan to improve the availability and quality of access to civil legal services for persons of limited means.” Seventeen members, appointed by the Supreme Court and the Bar Foundation, make up the Coalition. The Coalition has the authority to supervise the district pro bono committees. There is one district pro bono committee in each of the 12 judicial districts of Indiana. District pro bono committees are responsible for:
- preparing in writing an annual district pro bono plan after evaluating the needs of the district and determining pro bono services that exist
- selecting and employing a plan administrator
- implementing the district pro bono plan and monitoring its results
- submitting an annual report to the Coalition
- submitting the plan and funding requests for Indiana pro bono organizations/projects to the Coalition
Each district pro bono plans provides various support and educational services for participating pro bono attorneys and includes pro bono opportunities for attorneys.
Maryland Rule 19-501 establishes the Standing Committee of the Court of Appeals on Pro Bono Legal Service. The duties of the standing committee consist of developing standard forms and uniform standards for the local pro bono committees, to review and evaluate the local pro bono action plans and reports, file with the Court of Appeals an annual report about the effectiveness of the local pro bono action plans and prepare a state pro bono access plan. Rule 19-502 established Local Pro Bono Committees and Local Pro Bono Action Plans and its key points are as follows:
Local Pro Bono Committees (one for each county) are responsible for:
- assessing the diverse needs in the county for pro bono legal service
- determining the existing legal services for people of limited means in the county
- establishing goals and priorities for pro bono legal service in the county
- preparing a local pro bono action plan
- monitoring implementation of the plan
- submitting an annual report about the plan to the Standing Committee
Local Pro Bono Action Plans address the following:
- screening applicants for pro bono representation and referring them to appropriate resources
- establishing or expanding attorney panels
- continuing and supporting current services proved by pro bono and legal services organizations
- creating a procedure for matching cases with attorneys, including specialized panels
- supporting participating attorneys through activities such as: 1) providing litigation resources and out-of-pocket expenses for pro bono cases; 2) malpractice insurance; 3) legal education and training for participating attorneys; and 4) recommending court scheduling preferences for pro bono cases
- informing lawyers about the ways in which they can provide pro bono legal assistance
- coordinating implementation of the plan
- determining the number of hours of pro bono legal services needed annually to meet the needs of the poor
- developing programs to recognize lawyers who provide pro bono legal services.
In 2010, the Standing Committee of the Court of Appeals of Maryland on Pro Bono Legal Service released a Best Practices Manual for Local Pro Bono Committees.
Effective May 2006, the Nevada Supreme Court amended Rule 6.1 of the Nevada Rules of Professional Conduct to include a voluntary pro bono plan, among other changes. The purposes of the plan are to provide legal services available to the poor and to expand the existing pro bono programs. The plan includes the formation of district court pro bono committees. The relevant section of model rule 6.1 is described below.
Voluntary Pro Bono Plan
District Court Pro Bono Committees
There is a pro bono committee in each judicial district. The committees are responsibly for determining and addressing the unmet legal needs of the communities by creating local plans to be submitted to the Supreme Court.. The pro bono committees may establish local foundations to promote the provisions of civil legal services to the poor.
Access to Justice Section
A permanent State Access to Justice Section is established to assist in implantation of the plan as well as support local efforts to improve the public's access to justice
On April 28, 2006, the Supreme Court of New Mexico assumed oversight of a pro bono plan that was developed by the New Mexico Commission on Access to Justice (hereinafter "the Commission"). The Court also agreed to establish court pro bono committees and supported the creation and funding of a support staff to be based at the State Bar of New Mexico. The Court ordered that the Commission is authorized to coordinate efforts of recruitment of pro bono attorneys, law students and volunteers and the development of a website that offers pro bono opportunities.
Pro Bono Plan
An Access to Justice Commission is appointed to evaluate reports and coordinate funding requests. The New Mexico Supreme Court establishes District Pro Bono Committees in each judicial district. Local access to justice committees are established, and each judicial district committee develops local plans for improving access to justice for the poor including elements such as: (1) identifying legal needs, 2) establishing eligibility criteria; and 3) determining responsibilities among all pro bono service providers. Each judicial district plan defines a wide array of pro bono service opportunities, each judicial district committee is responsible for presenting its plan to the Access to Justice Commission.. The Commission is responsible for reporting on its progress to the New Mexico Supreme Court every year.
The Access to Justice Commission supports efforts to identify and obtain funds to support the pro bono plan implementation, train staff, and assist the judicial district committees.
Ohio Pro Bono Committee Task Force
On September 26, 2007, the Ohio State Bar Association formed a 31-member Pro Bono Task Force charged with establishing a statewide network of locally-based committees to promote and facilitate pro bono opportunities for attorneys. The Task Force's membership was comprised of lawyers, judges and legal service professionals from the state's 12 appellate districts. Members of the statewide Task Force were charged with recruiting lawyers and judges in their respective appellate districts to serve on local pro bono committees that assess the local needs of their community.
Local Pro Bono Committees
- There is a local pro bono committee for each of the state's 12 appellate districts
- The local committees are responsible for determining local needs and addressing such needs locally.
Updated April 2020