History of Pro Bono Legal Assistance in Florida

The lawyers in Florida have long responded to the legal needs of the poor through volunteer service. Organized pro bono programs date back to the Depression Era of the 1930's, when local bar associations in some of Florida's larger communities formed small legal aid programs using lawyers volunteering their time. While funding from local United Way Programs and the introduction of federally funded programs in the mid 1960's enabled legal assistance to the poor to expand, the need continued to far exceed the available assistance.

In 1970, The Florida Bar and the University of Florida co-sponsored a study of the availability of legal assistance to the poor in Florida (Levinson Report). One of the recommendations in the report to improve the availability of legal assistance to the poor was to encourage performance of pro bono services, including the establishment of a guideline setting an amount of pro bono work that is appropriate and enactment of legislation to enable government attorneys to do pro bono work Progress was made in expanding the availability of assistance in the 1970s, but serious inadequacies continued to exist as recognized by the Supreme Court of Florida in The Florida Bar v Furman :

  • "Devising means for providing effective legal services to the indigent and poor is a continuing problem The Florida Bar has addressed this subject with some success In spite of laudable efforts by the Bar, however, this record suggests that even more attention needs to be given to this subject"

As a result of the Furman case, The Florida Bar undertook another study of the problem by engaging the Center of Governmental Responsibility of the Holland Law Center of the University of Florida (Furman Report) This report, issued in 1980, found the gap between legal needs of the poor and the availability of legal assistance to be critical One of the recommended actions to narrow the gap was statewide implementation of a pro bono representation plan similar to the mandatory pro bono plan of the Orange County Bar Association The Supreme Court of Florida denied a petition to establish a statewide mandatory pro bono program in 1983.

In the mid 1980's The Florida Bar, the Governor of Florida and the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court appointed a Commission, The Florida Bar's Special Commission on Access to the Legal System, to assess and make recommendations on the problem of lack of adequate access to the legal system by the poor and middle class The Commission found that cuts in federal support for legal assistance to the poor had greatly exacerbated the access problem and one of the commission's recommendations was to amend the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar making pro bono legal assistance to the poor mandatory.

Against the backdrop of more than twenty years of study and recommendations, the D'Alemberte Petition was filed with the Supreme Court of Florida seeking to authorize the courts to appoint pro bono attorneys to represent indigents in civil matters It is the decisions in this proceeding that have brought about the Florida Voluntary Pro Bono Attorney Plan The Court in its landmark decision on December 13, 1990 held that:

  • "[E]very lawyer of this state who is a member of The Florida Bar has an obligation to represent the poor when called upon by the courts and that each lawyer has agreed to that commitment when admitted to practice law in this state".

Rather than establishing a mandatory pro bono program, however, the Court agreed to The Florida Bar request that the recommendations of the recently formed The Florida Bar/Florida Bar Foundation Joint Commission on the Delivery of Legal Services to the Indigent in Florida be considered prior to the adoption of any pro bono plan.

The Joint Commission's report and recommendations were filed with the Court in February 1991 Recommendation No 24 proposed the establishment of a statewide voluntary pro bono plan with aspirational standards of service, mandatory reporting, local pro bono committees and a statewide pro bono committee The Board of Governors of the Florida Bar supported the adoption of the recommendation but requested three modifications: 1) eliminating the collective satisfaction of the twenty-hour requirement; 2) expanding the definition of pro bono services to include services to the poor that are not strictly legal in nature; and 3) eliminating the reporting requirement, primarily because of administrative costs.

On February 20, 1992 The Court accepted the voluntary pro bono plan as recommended by the Joint Commission and requested the Joint Commission propose rules to implement the recommendation The proposed rules were submitted to the Court in September, 1992 and the Board of Governors of The Florida Bar again expressed its opposition to the reporting requirement The Court entered its history-making ruling which adopted the revised Public Service Rule 4-6, Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, on June 23, 1993 After motions for rehearing and for clarification were filed, The Court on February 3, 1994 made a clarification modification to Rule 4-61 and added further explanatory information in the comment to Rule 4-61, Rules Regulating the Florida Bar.

Thus after more than twenty years of The Florida Bar and the Supreme Court of Florida seeking to respond to the great unmet need for legal assistance by the poor, the comprehensive statewide voluntary pro bono attorney plan was in place Unprecedented activities were initiated to expand existing pro bono services and to provide new opportunities for pro bono service The Pro Bono Compliance Certificate ( the required reporting) appeared for the first time on The Florida Bar member dues statement for bar year 1994/1995.

At the request of the President of The Florida Bar, who wished to have the pro bono reporting become voluntary, the Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services initiated a study of the pro bono reporting requirement in the fall of 1995 While the Standing Committee found required pro bono reporting was important to retain, the Board of Governors of The Florida Bar voted by one vote to petition the Florida Supreme Court to make the pro bono reporting voluntary The Court denied the petition on May 22, 1997 holding that: "The mandatory reporting requirement is essential to guaranteeing that lawyers do their part to provide equal justice".