In this feature, we speak to Nathan Colless, a volunteer co-ordinator at the Hong Kong Centre for Pro Bono Service Ltd (“the Centre”). Established in 2014, the Centre is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to assist and empower the impoverished, distressed or vulnerable in Hong Kong, who are marginalized or disadvantaged due to a lack of financial or other resources and who cannot adequately protect, advance or represent their own legal rights and interests. The Centre relies on the generosity of volunteers and donors to deliver its services to those in need.
Read on more to find out about Nathan’s legal journey and how he became involved in pro bono initiatives across Australia and Hong Kong.
What made you choose to be a lawyer and what drives you today?
I wasn’t good at maths or science so I chose to apply to study law at university! My day job involves representing clients in litigation and regulatory investigations. Being faced with interesting issues and being able to work alongside good people are what drives me day-to-day.
When did you start doing pro bono work?
During my first year as a graduate at an Australian law firm. Pro bono was expected to become a part of every lawyer’s practice, so from very early on every graduate would attend various community legal clinics on a rotating basis to do pro bono work. It was just a part of the culture, which was great.
Despite having a very demanding full-time job, why then do you still spend a significant amount of time on pro bono?
For me, it is as simple as that I think it’s important work in its own right and it is an important part of being a professional. It also gives you the opportunity to develop some broader skills outside of your day-to-day practice. This goes beyond technical legal skills; it extends to people and management skills.
How is your pro bono work structured?
I am involved in pro bono work in both a professional and personal capacity. At work, I am a member of the office pro bono committee and do pro bono work through the firm. In a personal capacity, I help coordinate the activities of the Centre’s volunteers. The Centre has two big projects, one of which is operating a community legal clinic in Sham Shui Po in conjunction with the Society for Community Organisation. The clinic provides free legal advice to those in need in the local community. The other main project at the moment is the Domestic Worker Roundtable, which brings together stakeholders to assist domestic workers in Hong Kong who have been the victims of abuse or trafficking and to work on improving the enforcement of existing laws that regulate the recruitment and employment of domestic workers.
Launch of the Legal Clinic in Sham Shui Po
As a practicing lawyer, what skills or attributes do you feel have helped you in undertaking your pro bono role?
I think the broad skills that all lawyers acquire through their education and training have helped me undertake pro bono work. What lawyers often perceive to be straightforward things, such as how to analyse a set of facts, identify relevant legal rules, and apply them so as to give advice to a client, can be of immeasurable assistance to a person with limited formal education, or who is distressed, without resources, or marginalised and who doesn’t know where to start when faced with a legal problem – particularly if they are not from Hong Kong!
What is the most significant or impactful pro bono case you have worked on?
While a graduate lawyer, I was a member of a team that provided advice to a government agency set up to coordinate and manage the reconstruction of my state (Queensland, Australia) following some devastating floods in 2010-11. We assisted with the creation of an Australian-first land swap ballot to allow flood-affected residents of a valley outside Brisbane (my home town) to swap their existing property for land in a new town being developed above the flood line. It was meaningful to me to be able to assist in some small way at what was a very trying time for the people of Queensland.
What are some of the challenges you face when doing pro bono work?
The biggest problem is simply fitting it in with your day! There’s only so much you can do in 24 hours, unfortunately!
What do you think about the future of the pro bono scene in Hong Kong?
I think it will go from strength-to-strength. There is a long but underappreciated history of pro bono work in Hong Kong, which has been carried out by firms of all sizes. The pro bono community is becoming increasingly well joined-up, and there is great potential to continue to ameliorate some areas of legal need within the community, including through the operation of general legal clinics such as that run by the Centre. This is why I think it’s really important for everyone to get involved and do their part.
What are your thoughts on legal technology and how it will change the way pro bono is served?
What advice would you give to someone thinking of undertaking pro bono work?
This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.