Roscoe Banks, Legal Director, Qatar Financial Centre (QFC) and Christopher Grout, Registrar, Qatar International Court and Dispute Resolution Centre (QICDRC), highlight the significant role that legal service providers can play to support those most in need during times of crisis and that access to justice, as a fundamental component of the Rule of Law, is particularly important during times of worldwide disruption.
Ensuring that people do not become marginalised from the legal system during times of crisis is of critical importance. People should always have the right to access the courts in order to protect their rights. For many, this will be seen as a last, but sometimes necessary, resort. The worldwide impact brought about by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had, quite apart from the tragic loss of life, severe implications for the financial situations of many people. Ensuring that people know what their rights and responsibilities are during these challenging times is a key concern and one which can be addressed through a variety of means, including the willingness of both public and private institutions to help those who are most in need.
Legal Services During COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on access to justice and the way in which legal services are delivered. Judicial institutions and private law firms alike are not exempt from the need to observe social distancing and put into place remote ways of working. Crucially, they have had to adapt the way they operate in order to ensure their continued operation and service to the public. Indeed, it is perhaps unsurprising that many law firms have seen an increased need for professional legal advice in light of the widespread social and business lockdowns impacting millions of people around the world. However, many of the people who require these services either cannot afford to pay for them, or do not know how to access them. It is this problem that the public and private sectors together need to address.
QICDRC’s Pro Bono Service
Rooted in its mission to provide and enhance access to justice, the Qatar International Court and Dispute Resolution Centre (QICDRC) launched its Pro Bono Service. The purpose of this service is to extend support to eligible individuals (namely those whose legal issues fall within the jurisdiction of the Qatar International Court or Regulatory Tribunal and who genuinely cannot afford to pay for legal assistance) and provide them, through the medium of volunteer lawyers, with access to free legal advice and representation. Individuals can access the QICDRC Pro Bono Service Guidelines, and submit their application requesting legal assistance or representation, online via the Court’s website (https://www.qicdrc.gov.qa/legal-bureau/pro-bono).
This non-profit initiative is launched at a time when many individuals are struggling due to the uncertainties arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Pro Bono Institute and Latham & Watkins’ latest ‘Global Pro Bono Survey’, the ‘pro bono legal market does not have any great tradition in Qatar’ and, whilst opportunities for pro bono services may well exist, the market remains ‘very underdeveloped’. Whether that is entirely accurate is at least questionable in light of, for example, the annual Qatar Business Law Forum and Awards, managed and organised by Lexis Nexis, which has repeatedly recognised the efforts of law firms in Qatar (both national and international) for their pro bono efforts. That having been said, on a regional level, the TrustLaw Index of Pro Bono in 2016, showed that lawyers in the region provided an average of 25.9 hours of pro bono legal assistance each over the past year, while the average hours per lawyer on a global level stood at 39.2. To what extent those figures have changed over the last 5 years is unclear.
What is clear, however, is that the QICDRC’s initiative represents an inspiring model in the context of civil and commercial dispute resolution and creates a valuable resource in the provision of free legal advice and assistance to those who are most in need. It also reflects the sense of commitment, not only by the Court but also by private sector law firms and lawyers, to offer their expertise in response to the consequences of this particular crisis by putting in place appropriate support mechanisms to help eligible individuals. The efficacy of the QICDRC’s Pro Bono Service depends upon lawyers who are prepared to volunteer their time. To date, the number of QFC law firms that have signed up to volunteer is pleasing and the QICDRC is grateful to them. However, the more expansive and diverse the membership, the better. That is why the QICDRC is encouraging all law firms, whether registered in the QFC or not, who consider that they may be able to help, to sign up.
Although the QICDRC’s Pro Bono Service has been launched on the back of the current crisis, it is intended that this will constitute an ongoing commitment to the QFC community, reflecting the commitment to service excellence which is a core value of the QICDRC and the QFC as a whole.