Attorney-General Chris Finlayson is considering requiring law firms with Government contracts to provide free "pro bono" legal work for groups such as charities as a condition of their contract.

It follows a call from Law Society president John Marshall for the Government to consider getting big law firms to do more pro bono work.

It would mean that law firms which benefited from Government contracts would be required to offer free legal services up to a certain value to approved groups or causes such as charities or at Community Law Centres.

Mr Finlayson said it was already a requirement of many Government contracts in Australia.

"I think it's not a bad idea.

"It's something I've started to talk about with the Solicitor-General and its personally an idea I'm quite attracted to."

He said many Government contracts were channelled through the Crown Law Office, which he oversaw, so he was "actively looking" at what changes would be needed to start such a practice.

A spokesman for Justice Minister Simon Power said Mr Power was "intrigued" by the idea and would discuss it with his officials today.

Mr Marshall made the call at the ceremonial "first sitting" of the Supreme Court, suggesting the Government look at the Australian model of linking pro bono work to Government contracts.

In the state of Victoria, for example, firms must undertake pro bono work for an "approved cause" up to a value of about 5 to 15 per cent of the fee they earn under any Government contract.

Mr Marshall also urged the major firms to take more leadership on building up pro bono services. Firms in other countries had more structured pro bono systems than New Zealand, including Australia, where most big law firms had specific pro bono policies and budgets.

At DLA Phillips Fox, which has New Zealand offices, 3 per cent of its work is pro bono and lawyers have targets of 50 hours a year.

In New Zealand, Chapman Tripp was the first to set up a formal pro bono programme in 2003 and now has about 50 clients. Bell Gully and Russell McVeagh have also since set up structured programmes.

Chapman Tripp partner Nick Wells, who set up Chapman Tripp's programme, said: "Those who voluntarily do it tend to do it a lot better than those who are told to go and do it. It's not a bad idea, but there are already a lot who do it for free anyway ..."

He set up Chapman Tripp's programme after returning from Australia. He estimated that the firm's pro bono work had doubled since then.

Its dollar value ranged widely from year to year, depending on the needs of clients. For example, one client was the Outdoor Pursuits Centre and pro bono work escalated after the canyoning tragedy on the Mangetepopo Stream.

Others included Auckland City Mission, Sir Peter Blake Trust, Te Runanga o te Ngapuhi, Fashion Week and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.

Last November, Mr Finlayson and the Attorneys of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Australia, Canada, and the USA signed a joint declaration on the importance of promoting pro bono work.

Pro Bono:

* From the Latin phrase "pro bono publico", for the public good. In legal terms, it means the provision of legal services - such as advice or representation - free or at a reduced rate.

* Pro bono clients are usually those who do not qualify for legal aid, would not otherwise have access to the courts and whose case raises a wider issue of public interest. It also covers service at a free community law centre or representing and advising charitable and community organisations.