Turkey: For Public Benefit: Pro Bono Publico

"Pro bono" is a commonly used concept among lawyers and non-governmental organisations; however, it is not widely known in business world and public. Despite being highly significant to secure the right to a fair trial, the concept has been newly emerging in Turkey, unlike European countries. Pro bono is the short version of the Latin phrase "pro bono public", meaning "for the benefit of public". In terms of the legal profession, it refers to legal services voluntarily provided by attorneys free of charge at professional standards for the public benefit.

Pro bono stems from the idea of equal access to justice and legal representation. Attorneys, considering their significant role in the society and privileged position they have in matters of justice, have the obligation to promote the equal access to justice and to address the needs of underprivileged individuals of society. Pro bono legal services are even more significant especially if matters of public interest would not otherwise have access to legal counselling if there were no pro bono attorneys. Thus, it is crucial for attorneys to contribute to pro bono work and fill the gap in accessing justice.

Pro bono legal services are provided by attorneys without any fee. However, not every legal service provided free of charge is of pro bono nature. For a legal work to be defined as "pro bono", it must derive from the social responsibility and be performed for the public benefit. Hence, the beneficiary of pro bono work must be individuals incurring financial difficulty and in need for legal assistance; individuals or organisations whose matter raises an issue of public interest, or charities, communities or other non-profit organisations working for public good. Therefore, if an attorney represents its relative at the court free of charge, this would not count as pro bono work; however, representing a non-governmental organisation, or a person in need due to disadvantaged social/financial reasons, would.

The effective provision of pro bono legal services requires contribution of all actors composing the legal profession, including the bar associations. Bar associations also provides legal assistance to people otherwise unable to afford legal representation and access to the court system. However, pro bono work differs from the legal aid provided by bar associations. Bar associations provide legal aid according to the Regulation on Legal Assistance issued by the Turkish Bar Association and the Turkish Advocacy Law; and attorneys providing such legal assistance are paid by bar associations. Unlike legal aid, pro bono work is not regulated in detail under Turkish laws yet. However, although Turkish laws provides for the implementation of a minimum fee tariff for attorneys, the Turkish Advocacy Law permits attorneys to provide legal services free of charge by notifying such to bar associations.

Pro bono is a well-known and respected concept in Anglo-Saxon law system and widely applies in various countries, especially in United States of America, where the legal services are institutionalized. The concept gained high significance when President John F. Kennedy urged lawyers to defend civil rights before courts and created The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an organization summoning both private attorneys and firms for pro bono work, performing legal profession and educating public on legal matters. Following that, conducting pro bono work became a must for attorneys. Currently, every attorney registered to the New York Bar Association must perform minimum 50 hours of pro bono work to persons of limited means, or charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental and educational organizations. In Europe, pro bono gained significance and respect in 1990s upon the emergence of powerful non-governmental organizations and global expansion of US and UK law firms, setting mandatory rules on application of pro bono work. Currently, global law firms in many countries set mandatory pro bono work hours to its attorneys. Hence, not only underprivileged people have the opportunity to get legal support; but also attorneys, working in legal profession, get the opportunity to engage with underprivileged people and have the satisfaction to help in solving social problems.

It is highly important for civil entities to take initiatives to promote pro bono activities, as pro bono works are yet to be organised in Turkey, independently from the official authorities. As an example, the Legal Clinic and Pro Bono Legal Service Support Web operating under Istanbul Bilgi University is a milestone for development of pro bono works in Turkey. This promising support web gathers people and organisations in need for legal service and attorneys volunteering for pro bono work under a roof. We hope, with the support of bar associations, more and more attorneys will contribute to pro bono activities in the coming days.

The Turkish Constitution, in compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, emphasizes the right to a fair trial for each individual regardless of any religious, lingual, ethnic, sexual differences. Accordingly, it is the government's prior duty to ensure the equal access to justice and legal representation, together with the significant contribution of all actors in the legal profession. We hope an efficient and encouraging structure for attorneys to execute pro bono work would be established in near future, without state intervention into civil nature of pro bono work.

This article was first published by Dünya Executive.

© Kolcuoğlu Demirkan Koçaklı Attorneys at Law 2017

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