Law firms are responding to the international refugee crisis by increasing pro bono support globally, reveals the TrustLaw Index of Pro Bono, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s pro bono legal survey.

“The ongoing refugee crisis poses unprecedented challenges for Europe and the rest of the world”, says Monique Villa, Thomson Reuters Foundation CEO and Founder of TrustLaw. “We are seeing a worrying increase in the number of migrants illegally detained, including unaccompanied children. Lawyers are stepping up to provide life-changing support, and this is undoubtedly a beautiful story of solidarity in action”.

The survey reports that ‘Immigration, Refugees and Asylum’ was selected as a key focus area for pro bono work by 41.4 percent of firms – a substantial increase compared to the previous two years (24 percent and 28 percent respectively), reflecting the legal sector’s reaction to the global refugee crisis.

“This is a humanitarian crisis that is exacerbated by complex legal frameworks”, says Nick Glicher, Legal Director at the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “These frameworks make it difficult for refugees to understand their rights to reunite with family members, find work or even access basic services. Pro bono lawyers have stepped in to provide vital support – from advising refugees and asylum seekers on the ground in Greece and Thailand, to supporting organisations calling for stronger laws and policies that protect refugees and defend their rights.”

Compiled with data from over 130 law firms, representing 64,500 lawyers in 75 countries, the TrustLaw Index of Pro Bono provides a snapshot of key national, regional and global trends shaping the pro bono marketplace, highlighting successful programmes and mapping the growth of the sector globally.

“It is staggering to think about the social impact a week of pro bono per lawyer, per year represents”, says Glicher. “From advising refugees and representing the most vulnerable, to challenging oppressive laws and supporting non-profits or social enterprises, lawyers make a remarkable contribution to society that should be applauded.”

Among the general trends, the Index found that, 2.5 million hours of pro bono were completed globally, with lawyers dedicating a full working week (39.2 hours) on average each year to pro bono matters.

The data shows that the practice of pro bono is spreading beyond the realm of traditional pro bono markets and global law firms. This year, China and South Africa reported higher average pro bono hours per lawyer than anywhere else, with the exception of the US.

Asia has seen an unprecedented increase of 40 percent year-on-year in pro bono hours performed since 2014. In particular, the Index indicated unparalleled growth in China’s pro bono sector with lawyers clocking an astonishing 37 hours of pro bono work on average annually – similar to what’s seen in well established pro bono markets such as Australia, and even above the pro bono hours recorded in England and Wales.

“China’s growth in pro bono is remarkable: +211% since the TrustLaw Index began in 2014. NGOs in China face many challenges and this pro bono support is instrumental in helping them navigate increasingly complex legal frameworks”, says Villa. “Only 10 years ago, pro bono in China was a niche practice, but today the country has overtaken the amount of hours in England and other countries with solid pro bono traditions. China is definitely the country to watch.”

Equally surprising, small law firms performed the highest number of pro bono hours, averaging 41.7 hours per lawyer each year, compared to their larger counterparts that reported 35.1 hours.