Carmel Rickard. Photo: Supplied

It’s a profession demonised, but law societies stipulate pro-bono targets countrywide, writes Carmel Rickard.

Hands up readers who drove through Smithfield these holidays. Did you swoosh past our quaint golf course, laid out by British officers stationed here during the Boer War? Did you notice the flamingos in our dam?

Are you one of thousands who enjoyed the town’s hospitality and say the N6 is possibly the best national road route right now?

Whether you stopped over or drove through, you couldn’t have missed the new energy in the town. A large part is due to the fact that, after three horrible years of reconstruction, the N6 which passes right through the town, is now complete.

The detours, functioning like an economic tourniquet, are all gone and we are at last reclaiming the singular, frontier character that gives Smithfield its charm.

We’ve new street lights, broad new pavements and a small forest of sapling witstinkhout trees planted along the roadside.

There are other factors boosting the town’s morale, including our new arts festival, the Platteland Preview. Launched last year, it operates on a simple principle: we invite performers headed down the N6 for the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown to stay over en route; they get a last technical rehearsal and we get a festival.

It worked like a charm with the crew of about a dozen shows enjoying free accommodation and other facilities we provided. Spillovers included local school kids being exposed to drama for the first time and a morale boost for the town laid low by three debilitating years of roadworks.

We quickly realised though that we had to register as a non-profit company if the festival was to continue and grow. But how to do that without money for legal help?

The answer: talk to ProBono.Org, a clearing house that helps law firms connect with suitable cases that they will take on and help free.

So we called ProBono’s office in Joburg and explained our problem. Then we filled in some forms – this took a bit of work but it was worth every moment for, within a day or two of sending in the documentation, we heard that we’d been allocated a firm of attorneys to help us: Annerie Bosman of Spoor and Fischer in Pretoria would look after us, sort out our questions, advise us and make sure our application was safely delivered to the right government department.

I’d known about ProBono and its work and had always been a supporter. Now though, I’m also a beneficiary and it has made me even more enthusiastic about the organisation and the concept.

Started in 2007, ProBono.Org operated on the idea that lawyers as individuals and as firms, wanted to help causes and people otherwise unable to afford legal advice. In 2003, the Cape Law Society had agreed that all its members must do a minimum of 24 hours of compulsory pro-bono (free) work every year. Other provincial law societies and bar councils followed suit and now virtually every lawyer in South Africa is obliged to offer a significant block of time to pro-bono work each year.

What the organisation ProBono.Org brought to the table was the ability to sift through a myriad stories, manage the initial paperwork and then carry out a kind of highly specialised match-making process, putting cases and lawyers in touch with each other.

The organisation has been growing strongly, as many lawyers use it to find interesting or deserving cases on which to spend their pro-bono time, or cases that fit with the expertise of a particular firm – refugee work or health or disability issues or even family law problems, perhaps.

In the case of our festival, for example, Spoor and Fischer are known as intellectual property and trademark specialists (they offered to register our trademark as soon as it’s complete), so it has been an excellent fit for us.

How better to begin a new year than on a note of gratitude and enthusiasm about the future. Like thousands of others, we are very grateful to ProBono.Org for their splendid work and hope they flourish in the year ahead. We’re just as grateful to the firm that volunteered to help us with all our legal problems.

It’s also a moment to remember that lawyers, singly and as a profession, often get a bad rap that they don’t deserve. Yes, there are baddies, selfish or corrupt individuals, but there are also people and organisations working hard to implement the promises of our constitution. Well done them!

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

The Star