Dubai International Financial Centre Courts plans to expand its pro bono programme to offer potential claimants the opportunity to avoid paying legal fees for respondents, even if they lose their case.
Pro bono claimants are currently liable to pay respondents’ legal fees if they are unsuccessful. The scheme was launched in 2009.
The courts have launched a consultation on proposed amendments to the rules governing court procedures, which include significant changes to its rules on costs orders in favour of a party represented pro bono.
According to the proposed changes, “in certain instances a pro bono litigant may be entitled to a cost-free trial, where he/she will not be obliged to meet the legal costs of the opposing party or parties even if the pro bono litigant loses his or her case” .
The proposed changes, if implemented, would give an additional layer of security to would-be litigants concerned at the potential costs of bringing a case in the courts, according to Mark Beer, the DIFC Courts registrar.
“The mechanism we’re proposing to introduce would mean that if you get through a fairly challenging set of reviews and prove you have a meritorious case, then you can bring someone to court without any risks as to legal fees,” he said. “Historically you could get free pro bono legal advice, but if you lost your case you would still be on the hook for the other side’s legal costs.”
While intended to boost access to the courts for those who could not afford commercial legal fees, Mr Beer conceded that for the rules to be fair on respondents, the court faced a balancing act. “There are some on the other side of the equation who may well protest that they have to defend these cases, and would have to pay their own legal fees even if they win,” he said.
Under the proposed new rules, parties seeking a cost-free trial must convince the existing DIFC Courts’ Pro Bono Panel that there is a reasonable prospect that their case will succeed.
Applicants currently seeking pro bono representation in the courts have to present the panel with evidence that they are unable to afford legal representation in the DIFC Courts at market rates.
The plan to expand the Courts’pro bono scheme was a welcome move, said Jonathon Davidson, managing partner at Davidson and Co, one of several local firms that offer their support to the programme.
“The scheme, the first of its kind in the region, has brought greater access to justice for those who are most in need,” said Mr Davidson. “The further expansion of the programme will position it as one of the leading schemes in the world, and ensure those in need of justice have access.”
Yet the new rules, if implemented, may not lead to a large increase in the courts’ caseload, added Mr Davidson, with only a certain number of cost-free cases likely to be allowed by the pro bono panel .
“If the panel allows the claimant a cost-free trial, the respondent would have to be very confident of their chances of success, otherwise they would be much more likely to settle. It will inject some much- needed common sense into proceedings,” he said.
The DIFC Courts’ consultation on the new rules will run until October 26. The courts will host the latest in its pro bono free advice clinics on October 21.