Vegas to see pro bono gamble

LAWYERS in the US state of Nevada are awaiting the go-ahead from the state Supreme Court for a radical plan to establish the US's first mandatory pro bono scheme.

If successful, the scheme is likely to be copied in other states. It would be a major influence on thinking about such schemes by the UK profession and the Labour Party.

The US scheme is proposed by leaders of the State Bar of Nevada and would require its 4,000 lawyers to provide 20 hours free advice per year.

Alternatively, they would be able to buy out of the obligation by paying a $500 levy which would contribute to funding pro bono referral services.

Wayne Pressel, chief executive of non profit-making pro bono law firm Nevada Legal Services is one of the Nevada bar leaders behind the scheme.

“This is a massive undertaking for a state like ours. Implementing it will be complicated, and the need to properly regulate the variety of activities involved is one reasons why other bars have so far shied away from this,” says Pressel.

Five judges in the court, which governs the Bar, will rule on the scheme in early 1995.

Nevada's judges and three quarters of the Bar's leaders support the scheme. The state's 1.5 million inhabitants, mostly concentrated in Las Vegas, are thought to be in favour .

Although, 3,000 of Nevada's lawyers are thought to be reluctant to offer free services, Pressel says their levy payments would put $1.5 million a year into existing and new pro bono advice and referral facilities.

Such facilities now in the voluntary sector include Pressel's Nevada Legal Services, funded by public grants and private donations. Its clients range from individuals to local Indian tribes

Nevada's scheme aims to help the poor who cannot afford lawyers. It is set against a background of deteriorating access to justice and inadequate Federal civil legal services funding – the US legal aid system.

A rising tide of 'non-qualified legal technicians' or paralegals throughout Nevada and the US, giving allegedly substandard advice to the poor, has encouraged lawyers' support for pro bono services.