‘The Human Part of It’

Christopher Banys’ pro bono work helps immigrants and YouTubers

Published in 2018 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2018

As a 10-year-old, Christopher Banys would watch raptly as the TV lawyer who never lost a case bravely defended the falsely accused. He vowed to be like Perry Mason when he grew up.

But Banys’ first cases weren’t the ripped-from-the-headlines variety. Instead, a summer fellowship with the Greater Boston Legal Services had him handling such matters as emergency shelter appeals for homeless families. He was hooked on pro bono work for life.

At his Santa Clara firm, Banys, P.C., he and his law partners represent individuals and small businesses, usually going up against major corporations. Banys often helps inventors take on patent infringers. 

The pro bono work has ranged from an emotional child-immigration case to a copyright infringement suit over a novelty Christmas song.

“I believe in doing the right kind of pro bono cases—cases where people really do need a lawyer and they don’t have a lot of other options,” he says. “It’s not just doing free legal work, which sometimes can be unrewarding, because you can be taken for granted. But it’s actually finding those cases where you can have an impact.”

Banys’ efforts have earned him an Equal Justice America fellowship, the Legal Services for Children’s 2008 Pro Bono Advocate Award, and a Certificate of Appreciation from the Northern District of California’s Silicon Valley Pro Bono Project in 2011. 

In one case, Banys represented a Mexican couple facing deportation at a time when their U.S.-born daughter was suffering from a life-threatening medical condition. 

Their troubles began when they paid a storefront immigration “expert” $1,500 to guide them through the citizenship process. Not only did the expert and their money disappear, the couple came to the attention of immigration officials, who began the deportation process. Then they were assigned an immigration attorney who, Banys says, took the case to trial without ever meeting his clients. They lost.

Banys picked up their case from the San Francisco Immigration Court and helped file a winning appeal based on the previous attorney’s ineffective representation. At the new trial, Banys, who is fluent in Spanish, established that if the parents were deported, their 7-year-old daughter—who sat through the proceedings wheezing and coughing—might die. 

The couple won their green cards. “There were so many factors against them,” Banys says. “To win was even more sweet.”

Another San Francisco immigration case involved a 14-year-old boy smuggled into the U.S. by a Chinese gang. He was caught at the airport and held in custody until an uncle in Arkansas agreed to sponsor him while his case was processed. But the uncle soon kicked the boy out, leaving him homeless. The state of Arkansas refused emergency shelter because of the boy’s undocumented status.

The complex case stretched on for several years. In the end, Banys was able to establish that the boy qualified for a green card because his parents had abandoned and abused him.  

Not all of Banys’ pro bono cases have such high stakes.

Take the copyright infringement case of Shropshire v. Canning. Banys represented Aubrey Canning, an unemployed Canadian carpenter sued by Elmo Shropshire, who sang “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” A Canadian band did a rendition of the song, and Canning made a video set to that version, complete with images of reindeer and other Christmas characters, and posted it on YouTube.

Things got ugly when Shropshire asked Canning to take it down and he refused. Hurt egos and international jurisdiction made this a challenging case, Banys says. Yet he helped them settle in mediation.

“While this conflict was about copyright laws and international issues,” Banys says, “it settled around two guys standing up and shaking hands and one apologizing to the other. The human part of it. That made the case resolve. 

“It wasn’t some case that involved some cool procedural trick. It was a case that involved just counseling people out of conflict so they could face each other and see each other as human beings.”

 


 

Get Involved

Whether you are an experienced attorney or a student, many Bay Area organizations welcome help. Banys recommends the following groups:

Legal Services for Children1254 Market St., 3rd Floor, San Francisco (415) 863-3762  sc-sf.orgRegister online.

Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto1861 Bay Road, East Palo Alto (650) 326-6440  lsepa.org/Register online.

Law Foundation of Silicon Valley152 N. Third St., 3rd Floor, San Jose (408) 293-4790  awfoundation.orgCall to volunteer.

Federal Pro Bono ProjectSan Francisco and Oakland divisions  415) 626-6917 San Jose division  408) 297-1480 cand.uscourts.gov/probono

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