3 Feb 2022
By Hayley Norton, Pro Bono Programme Leader, DIFC Courts
The Pro Bono Programme allows individuals who cannot afford a lawyer the ability to seek free advice and representation from legally qualified volunteer lawyers. The Programme offers services from basic one-time legal advice to full case management and representation in court proceedings - ensuring that all parties are on an equal footing when appearing before the Court.
The Programme is widely known for its ‘pro bono clinics’ that are held on a regular basis throughout the year, during which potential litigants can walk in on the assigned days to meet a volunteer lawyer who can advise on actual or prospective claims and provide general legal advice, as necessary. In 2020, in support of the social distancing measures put in place by the Government of Dubai, the Programme shifted its clinics to an online platform, allowing individuals to receive pro bono legal assistance remotely, even if based outside of Dubai.
The Programme has proudly served many litigants well, delivering them justice that they would otherwise have been unable to pursue, and to date, the face-to-face clinics and online platforms have helped over 3,200 individuals.
In 2013, the Programme introduced a "costs-free" trial scheme allowing potential claimants the opportunity to bring a claim before the court without the fear or risk of paying the other side’s legal fees. The scheme requires that a litigant demonstrate to a Pro Bono Committee that there is a reasonable prospect that their case will succeed, and in the instance, they win the said claim, costs are paid by the opposing party into a Pro Bono Fund.
The Pro Bono Fund has been a pillar of support for many in the local community and has been used for several successful community projects, including the development of the next generation of legal professionals by offering law school tuition scholarships to Emirati and expatriate law students studying in the UAE. The Scholarship Programme has helped recognise students who demonstrate academic prowess, financial need, and a commitment to global legal system development. The Fund has also been used to organise employment law seminars to help individuals better understand their rights within the DIFC freezone, which may differ significantly from their home jurisdictions.
Not only has the Programme served to support individuals in financial hardship, but it has also gone one step further to help bring together a mix of international and local law practices - none of whom had any prior experience of such a Pro Bono initiative operating in the Middle East. The Pro Bono service has inspired both private practices and judicial organisations alike within the UAE and the wider Middle East, and has fostered and developed a knowledge sharing environment, allowing lawyers (many of whom have trained from across the globe) to share their experiences of both the civil and common law systems.
Looking to the future, the Programme strives to introduce innovative firsts across the Middle East and beyond. With 85% of Dubai’s population originating from countries from around the world, English is not always the first language of those seeking pro bono services. In recognition of Dubai’s multi-cultural society, the Programme is advancing itself to cater and tailor its services in line with the socio-demographics of its end users. To that end, in 2022, the Programme will offer legal assistance in multiple languages - giving pro bono litigants the ability to select their preferred language for seeking help and for receiving the relevant advice. In doing so, the Programme aims to help simplify what can often be a particularly unfamiliar and disconcerting situation into one where people are helped to feel more at ease and in control of their livelihood.
The DIFC Courts is widely acknowledged for its aspiration to introduce ground-breaking initiatives across the Middle East. In the same vein, the Pro Bono Programme will be continuing its legacy as a pioneer and leader of technological advancements. The Programme will be working closely with the brilliant minds of the DIFC Courts’ IT Department to create a purpose built ‘pro bono online portal’ enabling individuals to receive help and assistance through a dedicated platform that can be accessed anytime, anywhere, through the simple ‘click of a button’. Once a pro bono litigant has filed their request for legal assistance, the platform will streamline their request to the most appropriate volunteer lawyers by allocating language preferences, areas of legal specialism, and considering the lawyers’ availability at that specific period of time.
The platform will be equipped with machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities to create an ‘index’ of the advice being sought by individuals and the corresponding responses being provided by the volunteer lawyers. In time, the platform will act as Pro Bono Digital Assistant being able to scan the ‘index’ and offer recommendations for legal advice immediately – providing swifter and more efficient access to justice for all.
In terms of future community projects, the Programme will be expanding its focus to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMES) within the jurisdiction and geographical area of the DIFC. Such enterprises reportedly represent 94% of all companies in the UAE and contribute around 40% to Dubai’s GDP. In line with the UAE Government’s ambition to enhance the performance of the SME sector, the Pro Bono Programme shall provide workshops and seminars to such businesses, to help support and advise budding entrepreneurs about the legal aspects of setting up a business within the UAE.