California Senate passes Wieckowski pro bono State Bar reporting bill

To encourage more legal assistance to California's indigent, SB 316 requires reporting of attorneys' pro bono hours

May 30, 2017

Sacramento – With the proposed elimination of the Legal Services Corporation, the federal agency that provides partial funding for legal aid, threatening to reduce access to justice for low-income Californians, the state Senate today approved a bill by Senator Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) requiring attorneys to report to the State Bar how many hours of pro bono work they perform each year.  Other states have found that mandatory reporting results in greater pro bono activity and improved relationships between lawyers and non-profit legal organizations.

“This bill provides more transparency and understanding of the level of pro bono activity and donations going to legal aid organizations,” said Wieckowski, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  “The justice gap is widening.  President Trump wants to eliminate federal legal aid funding.  The Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee just proposed to increase the state’s Equal Access Fund by $30 million for the first time in history. But if that total is not approved we will be much worse off. We have a responsibility to provide justice to all Californians, not just those who can afford an attorney.”

The consequences are severe for people who lack access to legal assistance in civil matters.  They do not receive help in fighting wrongful evictions or foreclosures, settling consumer debt issues, or gaining a protective order in a domestic violence case. 

SB 316 encourages lawyers to fulfill their pro bono ethical commitment to make a contribution of both 50 hours of pro bono work and a financial contribution.  It is a “mandatory reporting, voluntary disclosure” bill.  Attorneys must report to the State Bar their pro bono hours and financial contributions to legal aid groups, but can decide if they want that information disclosed to the public on their State Bar profiles.  The public will be able to see whether an attorney failed to report at all or chose to keep her reporting private.

“This bill will offer attorneys gentle encouragement to step up and put their skills and resources to work for the benefit of the community, in the way they are uniquely equipped to do,” said Tiela Chalmers, chief executive officer and general counsel of the Alameda County Bar Association and Volunteer Legal Services Corporation. “All of us need a little push from time to time, and this bill raises awareness without mandating charitable behavior.  I believe that SB 316 is likely to lead to an increase in pro bono work and donations to legal service providers – and that’s a net gain for the legal community and for the community at large.”

Eighteen states require some form of mandatory or voluntary reporting of pro bono activities.  Under SB 316, those who are employed by a legal aid organization provider, employed by government, are an elected official, or a judge will not be required to report.   

Senator Wieckowski represents the 10th District, which includes southern Alameda County and parts of Santa Clara County.