Report on Lawyers Against Poverty and our guest speakers event on 14 November 2019

Report on Lawyers Against Poverty and guest speakers event, November 2019

On 14 November Lawyers Against Poverty hosted an evening of talks on the topic: How lawyers can use their legal skills in order to promote rule of law and access to justice. This discussion took place in the context of women’s rights and refugee support.

We were delighted to welcome four speakers who gave up their time to talk with us about these issues:

Tsitsi Matekaire, Global Lead, End Sex Trafficking, Equality Now

Samantha Ferrell-Schweppenstedde, Programme Officer, End Sex Trafficking, Equality Now

Philip Worthington, Managing Director of European Lawyers in Lesvos

Adrian Henderson, Chair of the Oxford branch of Lawyers Against Poverty and Lead for our Refugee Thematic group.

All of our speakers delivered engaging and fascinating talks which highlighted some horrifying statistics and the need for greater intervention. The power-point presentation can be accessed here: LAP Presentation 14.11.19 and see also below for a summary of the talks.

Co-chair of LAP Kirsty Wilson opened the evening with an introduction to Lawyers Against Poverty for those new to our network. LAP is a network of lawyers from all parts of the profession, who are committed to finding and supporting projects aimed at reducing poverty and improving lives for the vulnerable, using access to justice and rule of law. Our members give support by volunteering and also through donations to our justice fund which we use to make grants to projects in the UK and overseas. One way we utilise the law to promote legal and social change is though strategic litigation. For a relatively modest sum, key legal cases can make a real difference.

In the area of women’s rights, members will recall our support of the Mary Sunday litigation in Nigeria last year. This case created precedents around safeguarding of vulnerable individuals, the right to access to justice, the right be heard and principles of proper investigation, prosecution and compensation.

The concept of strategic litigation is relatively new in Africa but can be an effective way of bringing about social change. Our members recently made a grant to Oxfam to support the inaugural Strategic Litigation Conference in Nairobi. This conference was hugely successful and a report will come out to members shortly but meanwhile we have some photos of the event available on the power point presentation

On the subject of women’s rights, our first speakers were Tsitsi Matekaire, and Samantha Ferrell-Schweppenstedde from Equality Now. Tsitsi introduced us to the global problem of sex trafficking with some distressing figures – 72% of human trafficking victims are women and girls most of whom are trafficked for sexual exploitation. This is the world’s fastest growing criminal enterprise with traffickers making $99billion a year. She then described, by way of example, the situation in the coastal region of Kenya – one country where Equality Now works. 30% of children aged 12-18 have been exploited in sex tourism; 10% before the age of 12. An estimated 40,000 children are affected in this area alone (figures from UNICEF).

Samantha outlined the legal framework and described some of the challenges in using law as a means to enforce rights and afford protections using examples of cases in Kenya and Malawi. In many countries, laws conflict and penalties differ. In Kenya, Equality Now has been working with the National Council on the Administration of Justice in Kenya to try and harmonise their laws. Equality Now also works to support litigation of cases but considerable challenges exist in such endeavours including incompatible and conflicting laws, low levels of gender reporting which, once reported, is not taken seriously, compromises (eg paying off victims) and even victims being held in prison together with perpetrators.

Samantha highlighted the important role carried out by NGOs for example in providing shelters, mental health support, childcare support, victims advocates and so on. Globally, most legislation allows for provision of support to victims but the reality is that many governments simply don’t have the funding/resources to provide such support. And so Equality Now and other agencies will continue their vital work in supporting these victims and advocating for improvements in legal systems.

Our next topic was that of refugees and we were delighted to welcome back Phil Worthington, Director of European Lawyers In Lesvos to speak again about his work in refugee camps in Lesvos in Greece and how lawyers can contribute. LAP members have supported ELIL in the past through Oxfam in Greece and we continue to support Oxfam projects in that area.

Phil opened by saying that on his visit to LAP last year, he bemoaned the fact the Moria refugee camp, which has a capacity of 3,000, was struggling to manage 7,000 refugees. This year that figure has risen to 14,000 including more than 1,000 unaccompanied minors. The rise is partly a result of political change in Greece and elsewhere. He emphasised the concern that the European refugee crisis no longer has any media profile and is becoming more normalized – as if it is now accepted by Europeans that 45,000 people are waiting on the Aegean islands to go through the camps.

The legal context is that there is no state legal aid available at first instance asylum hearings – only on appeal – although Phil explained that for the majority of the last 18 months, there has been no lawyer available to assist with appeals. There are 15 lawyers for 14,000 people at the camp so most people do not see a lawyer.

Without advice, applicants can inadvertently place the wrong emphasis on their applications through cultural differences (perhaps reluctance to show weakness or complain) and lack of awareness of the legal framework thus prejudicing their chances of asylum.

ELIL works to provide this legal advice through volunteer UK and European lawyers. 75% of ELIL’s work is in provision of critical legal advice before interview. 74.5% of those advised by ELIL have been granted international protection (compared with an average of 46.5% in Greece). ELIL also works on family reunification cases, age assessments. It prioritises work with unaccompanied minors.

ELIL has worked with some 188 volunteer lawyers from 18 European countries, amassing around 39,000 volunteer hours.

Phil concluded by applauding the harnessing of solidarity and the pro bono spirit of lawyers which led to the establishment of ELIL and now to its continued work. He suggests it is the responsibility of European lawyers to support such asylum work given this crisis is happening in Europe.

On a domestic note, Ade Henderson spoke about his work coordinating the LAP refugee insight sessions which are currently running in Oxford and are currently being rolled out to London and Guildford. These workshops are designed to equip refugees with the legal knowledge to enjoy their rights as residents of the UK and their local communities. This arose out of the realization that the majority of pro bono advice available to refugees related to questioning the status of asylum seekers – in essence filling the legal aid gap in that area. But very little was available once settled status is granted.

The sessions are not designed to deliver asylum or immigration advice, but rather basic legal knowledge on topics such as housing, welfare & benefits, family, criminal and employment rights. Not all information provided is law based. Much relates to adjusting expectations of cultural and social norms. Ade gave examples around family norms and the police. For some refugees, the concept that the State has jurisdiction over the family unit, is new; as is the concept that the public can have recourse against the police if they abuse their powers.

This is an initiative that lawyers of all backgrounds can contribute to. Ade is looking at extending the offering by preparing a ‘manual’ of workshop materials and central database for student law centres and groups to access. There are challenges – one is that we are all volunteers so progress is often slow! Our aspiration is to grow and develop this project so any lawyer interested in contributing should email us.

Finally Co-Chair Richard Dyton endorsed the wish of lawyers to support, through donations, pro bono and volunteering, such causes. Anyone interested in getting involved can speak with any of the speakers or LAP people or can sign up to our mailing list via the website.

Richard also announced that we have recently made the decision to apply to register LAP as an independent charity. We have funding to enable us to appoint a director of operations and are hugely excited about this opportunity to extend and develop our work. We remain grateful to Oxfam and Joss Saunders who established LAP and will retain close links. Please keep a look out in our newsletters for more information.

Thanks again to all our speakers, our attendees and Simmons & Simmons for hosting. See you at the next event!

Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond his and our control, Dominic Grieve QC was unable to speak at our event as originally advertised. We hope he will join us in early 2020.

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