Giving back to the community has always been one of the guiding values of the Law Society.
Many legal practitioners have been actively participating in pro bono and community work, quietly fulfilling their social responsibilities in different meaningful ways. What the Law Society has been doing is to support them by providing for structured opportunities.
The community projects that the Law Society regularly organises include the annual “Teen Talk” involving over 100 solicitor volunteers facilitating discussions on topics of legal interest for over 1,000 secondary students from 18 districts. “Law Week”, another mega event of the Law Society that is usually launched at the same time as Teen Talk every year, provides opportunities for our members to share their legal knowledge with the public through seminars, videos on social media and face-to-face consultation on legal problems at convenient locations in the city.
The “Legal Pioneer Mentorship Programme” is another popular community project of the Law Society. It has evolved from the earlier Law Society initiative, “Path Builders” which was launched in 2009 to support the anti-drug abuse campaign in secondary schools. Members volunteered their time to act as mentors to secondary students to guide them away from drugs. The encouraging success of the initiative has created a demand for it to become an on-going programme. Over the years, the aim of the mentorship has expanded beyond anti-drug abuse to the overall development of the student community. In 2013, the programme was renamed to “Legal Pioneer” to highlight the focus on nurturing the leadership skills of students through group projects on law related themes.
Other community events organised for our volunteers are wide ranging aiming to benefit different sectors of the community. They include visits to the Home for the Elderly and children in Po Leung Kuk, as well as talks and activities jointly organised with the government and NGOs like the Social Enterprise Legal Seminar Series and the NGOs Governance Platform Project with the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, the Business-School Partnership Programme with the Education Bureau, the Free Legal Advice Service on Building Management with the Home Affairs Department and the Pro Bono IP Advisory Service with the Intellectual Property Department.
The Law Society’s Free Legal Helpline has been in operation since 2013. In 2017, the Helpline manned by over 130 solicitor volunteers handled 1,677 requests for legal assistance in the areas of personal injury, matrimonial law, criminal law and mediation.
These Law Society projects for the benefit of the public would not have materialized without the support of our practitioners who selflessly contributed their precious time and expertise to help those in need.
Some community projects involve the provision of legal advice to the public on a pro bono basis, for example, our Free Legal Helpline. An important aspect of these projects is to ensure that the public is adequately protected as they may rely on the advice given and act on it. An overriding principle is that pro bono services are not inferior to paid services. There should be no difference in the standards of service and the safeguards in place for the protection of the service recipients. The first basic requirement is that the person providing pro bono advice must hold a current practising certificate and he is entitled to practise as a solicitor and to provide services to the public in such capacity. Further, the solicitor must apply all the professional conduct rules, for example, rules on conflict and confidentiality, to pro bono services with equal rigor.
In terms of professional indemnity, rule 6 of the Solicitors (Professional Indemnity) Rules (“Rules”) requires every solicitor in “Practice” in Hong Kong to have and maintain indemnity under the Solicitors Professional Indemnity Fund as provided in the Rules. The Council has adopted the view that if a solicitor is held out to the public as providing pro bono services and does so with some degree of formality and regularity, as opposed to an informal one-off basis, the solicitor will be carrying on a “Practice” falling within the scope of rule 6 of the Rules. If the pro bono legal services are offered in the solicitor’s personal capacity and not as part of the practice of his law firm, the pro bono services will not be covered by the Indemnity to which the firm is entitled under the Rules.
Solicitors on the Panel of the Law Society’s Free Legal Helpline are thus required to obtain their firms’ endorsement of their participation in the Helpline. This ensures that their pro bono service forms part of the practice of their firms and are covered by the Professional Indemnity Scheme in the same way as other services of the firms provided in the course of their practice
If a solicitor prefers to act in his personal capacity and not as part of the practice of his law firm, in order not to breach rule 6(1) of the Rules, he must obtain an exemption pursuant to rule 7 of the Rules before offering regular and formal pro bono legal service to the public. For protection of the public, only cases where adequate insurance and proper mechanisms to ensure compliance with professional ethical requirements are in place will an exemption be considered. The guidelines and application procedures are in the Law Society Circulars.