Check back here soon for details of our upcoming events!
Drinks for Members and Friends
Many thanks to everyone who came along to our drinks on Wednesday 10 April at Baker McKenzie to share their ideas for developing Lawyers Against Poverty and shaping our strategy over the coming year and beyond. Ph: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam.
Just Lawyers Hackathon
Making Indigenous Land Rights a Reality
On Monday 4 February, Lawyers Against Poverty hosted a discussion at Simmons & Simmons on the theme of “Making Indigenous Land Rights a Reality”. We were honoured to have Professor Alexandra Xanthaki, Research Director at Brunel Law School, and Joss Saunders, General Counsel of Oxfam GB, to lead the discussion on the struggle to realise indigenous rights and what we as lawyers can do to help.
We heard first from Alexandra, who focused on the current state of international law in the area of indigenous rights (including in relation to land). The main challenge for indigenous communities, she said, is twofold. Firstly, it is an issue of securing the right to self-determination, in practice as well as in theory. Secondly, it is an issue of securing respect for indigenous identities and their way of life and vision of society. She made it clear that indigenous peoples are agents of change and not victims and lawyers must ensure not to treat them with condescension and misunderstanding; they must help in the indigenous struggle to realise their rights (rather than seeking to set the agenda themselves).
Speaking on the value of the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples, Alexandra considered why it is that indigenous communities are in need of special protection. The fact is that the level of distinctiveness of indigenous peoples makes them more vulnerable than non-indigenous peoples and hence in need of special protection under international law. There is also the fact that indigenous communities have a unique understanding of their ancestral lands and do not view them merely as property. Indeed, the extraordinary and spiritual significance of land to the indigenous communities whose ancestors have occupied and tended it for centuries has been recognised by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Efforts not to recognise the rights of indigenous communities to stay on their land and continue their activities in connection with it are widespread and concerted. An argument often used by states is that, while they recognise and respect the right of indigenous communities to their land, it is necessary in order to serve the wider good that these lands are forfeited. Poorer countries will refer to imperatives of economic development in service of the wider population; richer ones indicate the need to sustain the quality of life of its non-indigenous as well as indigenous peoples. But economic development or other such arguments are inadequate on their own to justify depriving indigenous communities of rights to their land.
Alexandra went on to discuss the fact that there has been an increase in state violence against indigenous peoples. In Bangladesh in 2017, 141 indigenous human rights defenders were arrested or detained while 161 were harassed with false charges; in addition, an estimated 56 indigenous women and children were sexually or physically assaulted by mostly non-indigenous perpetrators. In Colombia, there were 45 murders of indigenous peoples as well as 122 instances of threats, 827 unjust incarcerations and 3,800 displacements. In the Philippines, there were 37 cases of extrajudicial killings and 62 of illegal arrests. With violence on the rise, Alexandra and others are working to identify the most effective means of safeguarding indigenous rights.
A major achievement in recent times has been the recognition of a standard of free, prior and informed consent. This essentially creates a right to veto for indigenous communities in circumstances where their land is directly affected by a prospective development. This, said Alexandra, is revolutionary and will assist in the struggle to safeguard the ancestral lands of indigenous communities. The rights to restitution and compensation are other tools in the arsenal available to indigenous peoples, although these can be difficult to enforce in practice (as has been the case in Kenya). Underling all of these is the principle of self-management and the need to recognise indigenous communities as the custodians of and equal stakeholders in the land.
We then heard from Joss, whose section of the discussion was focused on what we as lawyers can do to help. By way of introduction, Joss set out two cases and asked us to identify which occurred a couple of years ago and which occurred 3 millennia ago. In the first case, the ancestors of an indigenous community had lived on a certain tract of land over the course of many years. One day, an official arrived with a sheaf of documents asserting that it was the state who owned the land. The community started a campaign to keep their land and its leaders were arrested, detained and convicted for trespass. They appealed to a superior court and were able to avoid incarceration only by agreeing never again to set foot on their land.
In the second case, the ancestors of an indigenous community had lived on a certain tract of land over the course of many years. One day, an official arrived with a sheaf of documents asserting that it was the state who in fact owned the land. The course of events from there was much the same (the community leaders were arrested, detained and convicted of trespass) except that on appeal the indigenous community was able to adduce documentary evidence of ownership and consequently regained their lands. It was this case that occurred 3 millennia ago in China, showing us that indigenous peoples have struggled with much the same issues for many years indeed.
With the benefit of this introduction, Joss went on to consider several issues connected with rights to land in the world today, including the importance of communication and the crucial function of lawyers in communicating the substance of their rights to indigenous communities as well as the struggle of women to realise their rights to retain land once their husband has died. Concerning the importance of communication, Joss described a case study in India, where an indigenous community was unaware of a new law made in their favour. You can watch a video about the case here. In relation to women’s land rights, Joss referred us to a case in Uganda, where a man was intent on murdering his uncle’s wife in order to claim the land left on his death.
Joss then discussed the fact that while charities and companies are often at war with one another over the issues of indigenous rights to land, it may be the time to work together in order to create solutions that safeguard the rights of indigenous communities while meeting (some of) the (compatible) interests of multi-national corporations. By way of example, Joss mentioned the report issued regularly by Oxfam called “Behind the Brand”, which uses a number of metrics to measure a company’s compliance with ethical standards in areas such as labour, women’s and land rights. Each company is accorded a score based on its policy in relation to (for example) whether or not it is aware of the conditions under which a particular one of its supplier is using a certain area of land. This can create an incentive for companies (and indeed their competitors) to improve their policies and practices and conduct the requisite level of due diligence at all stages of the supply chain. And lawyers can help in this area by negotiating contracts that require disclosure of the conditions under which a supplier is occupying a certain area of land.
We want to thank Alexandra and Joss (as well as Richard and other expert contributors from our audience) for bringing to life an issue which is becoming a crisis on a worldwide scale. Please click here for a copy of the slides we showed on the evening and watch this space for news of more upcoming events: Making Indigenous Land Rights a Reality.
Advancing Women’s Rights Through Strategic Litigation and Other Tools
On Wednesday 28 November, Lawyers Against Poverty hosted a discussion on the tools we can use most effectively to advance and assert women’s rights.
We heard firstly from Naomi Passman, one of the members of our women’s rights working group. As an introduction, she shared with us a series of facts which made eminently clear the inequality and injustice suffered by women in the world today. By way of example, one in three women will suffer some form of domestic violence in their lifetime (and in some countries this may be as high as one in two). Gender equality, said Naomi, is more than a moral consideration; creating the conditions that enable women to thrive is necessary for sustainable development. By way of example, if every girl worldwide received 12 years of free, safe and quality education, on an equal footing with boys, lifetime earnings for women could increase by $15-30 trillion. Girls who complete secondary education become healthier and more prosperous adults, with smaller families and children who are less at risk of illness and death and are more able to contribute fully in their families, communities and societies as earners, informed mothers and agents of change. Naomi considered what we as lawyers can do as opposed to other advocates in civil society and concluded that strategic litigation can inform public opinion and create the necessary consensus for social change.
We then heard from Emily Blower, another member of our women’s rights working group, who introduced our audience to an important case supported with funding from Lawyers Against Poverty. The case was initiated against Nigeria by the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (the IHRDA) and the Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre before the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (the ECOWAS Court) on behalf of a woman called Mary Sunday, who suffered severe injuries and burns after an attack by her fiancé. They argued that the failure of state authorities effectively, impartially and independently to investigate the allegations and prosecute the perpetrator, a serving police officer, constituted a violation of the victim’s rights under the African Charter and the Maputo Protocol. In May 2018, the ECOWAS Court found a violation of the right to an effective remedy under Article 7 of the African Charter and ordered compensation for Mary in the amount of 15 million Naira.
Gaye Sowe, Executive Director of the IHRDA and counsel on record in the case, was unable to attend on the night but made a video for us in which he noted that although the court awarded compensation, it remained silent on many of the arguments submitted and on the structural remedies sought, including an order for psychosocial support for Mary and other victims of domestic violence. Across other cases on which he worked, Gaye found this to be a trend: the ECOWAS Court would order reparations to compensate an individual victim but remain mute on structural remedies and the wider issues at stake in women’s rights cases. This was a significant omission, said Gaye, as the issue of violence against women cannot be resolved without addressing the structural disadvantage of women in all areas of life. Despite the challenges of mounting strategic litigation, Gaye concluded that it is an extremely important tool for securing change in the law, in policy and in social practice. It establishes valuable jurisprudence at the regional level on issues such as the connection between sexual violence and discrimination. And a judgment against a single country in a case involving an individual claimant can advance the rights of millions of women across the region.
We heard next from Meghan Campbell, Deputy Director of the Oxford Human Rights Hub and Lecturer at Birmingham University Law School, who considered the value of the inquiry procedure under Article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women as a means of identifying severe and widespread violations of women’s rights and remedying structural discrimination. Thus far, the Committee has carried out five inquiries, including into murdered and missing women in Mexico, murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada and the contraception ban in the Philippines, and issued significant findings. In its report on Mexico, the Committee was concerted in its efforts to emphasise the intersectional reasons for the killings in Ciudad Juárez. Poor women became ready targets as they walked to work very early in the morning, without access to any transport and entirely in the dark. These women were more vulnerable to violent crimes as a consequence of poverty and the absence of affordable public services.
According to Meghan, the inquiry procedure has several advantages in comparison with strategic litigation and other legal tools. It does not require an individual victim to initiate an action and suffer the costs (social as well as financial as violence against women is stigmatised in many societies across the world). It is not bound by time limits or rules of evidence that often make crimes against women such as assault and rape difficult to litigate. And it is focused on addressing the wider and underlying causes of structural discrimination as opposed to assessing a set of facts in one case. Due to the unenforceability of remedies recommended by the Committee, Meghan made clear that it is necessary to use the inquiry procedure strategically and alongside other forms of activism.
Finally, we heard from Laura Gyte, Campaigns Legal Adviser at Oxfam GB, who considered CEDAW in the context of poverty, economic inequality and tax avoidance. Economic inequality endangers progress on poverty: unless the poor benefit more from growth between now and 2030, the World Bank forecasts that the first Sustainable Development Goal to eliminate extreme poverty will be missed. Meanwhile UNCTAD estimates that developing countries are losing around $100bn annually as a result of multi-national corporations channelling investments through tax havens. The ramifications of tax avoidance for gender justice are substantial as the realisation of women’s rights requires funding and expenditure on public services such as education, water, electricity and transportation and health. For several years, said Laura, the CEDAW Committee has insisted that the UK is responsible for ensuring that its own transnational tax laws and those of its Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories must not detract from or impair women’s rights and gender equality. The UK, therefore, can and should choose to reconfigure its policy in order to make more significant progress on women’s rights at home and around the world.
Thank you to all our members and others who came along on Wednesday; it was wonderful to share thoughts on striving for change and equality for women.
An Evening with Lawyers Against Poverty
On Monday 15 October, Lawyers Against Poverty hosted a discussion at Simmons & Simmons on the theme of what lawyers can do in aid of refugees.
We heard from Professor Alexandra Xanthaki, Research Director at Brunel Law School, who established an initiative whereby students can offer their assistance as volunteers to refugees in Athens. Alexandra showed us a video in which the students describe their time in the Eleonas Refugee Camp and in a community centre for women and children. Pro bono and voluntary work, in aid of refugees and others, is very much encouraged within the law department at Brunel – as Alexandra says, empathy and passion for justice are essential for any lawyer.
We also heard from Phil Worthington, Managing Director of European Lawyers in Lesvos, an organisation working to ensure free and independent legal advice for asylum seekers on the island of Lesvos. He conveyed very strongly the struggle for asylum seekers to understand the system they must navigate, which is complex and ever-changing. Legal aid is only available at the appeal stage (and sometimes not even then) and most will attend their asylum interviews (at which their status is determined) without seeing a lawyer first.
Jared Ficklin, Director of the University of Liverpool’s Law Clinic and a volunteer with ELIL, shared with us his account of Moria, described by the BBC as the “worst refugee camp on Earth.” He said it was not the overcrowding or squalor that created the worst feelings of despair among the inhabitants but rather the slow and entirely opaque system for seeking sanctuary. As a result, individuals who are already vulnerable and living in the camp for many months without a decision can very easily become traumatised.
Adrian Henderson, Leader of LAP’s Refugee Thematic Group, told us about the series of legal insight training sessions that Lawyers Against Poverty developed and delivered in Oxford in late 2017. The sessions were based on employment, criminal and family law and were intended to offer refugees information on their rights as residents of the UK. As a next step, Adrian is intending to create a centralised database with resources for volunteers around the country to use in order to offer the sessions in many more regions.
Kirsty and Richard introduced the new initiative we are currently working on to increase engagement with refugee rights issues and encourage collaborative action to support refugees overseas and in the UK. We want to collaborate with a network of volunteers on a range of activities to assist refugees, including working to offer legal insight training sessions to more refugees, create work experience opportunities for refugees and raise funds for European Lawyers in Lesvos and the Greek Council for Refugees.
Thank you to all members and others who came along on Monday; it was wonderful to come together and discuss what lawyers can do in aid of refugees in the world today.
The Launch of Just Lawyers at the Law Society
On 13 June 2018, Just Lawyers was launched on the first day of the Law Society’s In-House Division Conference. Our panel of speakers – Nikki Elliot (Co-Chair of Lawyers Against Poverty’s In-House Thematic Group), Mark Maurice-Jones (General Counsel at Nestlé), Claire Mortimer (Assistant Legal Adviser at the Foreign Office) and Joss Saunders (General Counsel at Oxfam GB) – chaired a series of roundtable discussions on achieving social justice as a lawyer.
Our first discussion was around creating a culture of compliance within an organisation and influencing others in our role as lawyers. We considered the need to encourage the right behaviours and communicate with openness and transparency in order to increase meaningful engagement, especially with more junior members of an organisation, and foster trust.
Our second discussion considered public perceptions of lawyers and whether or not we are seen as guarantors of justice. We discussed the fact that perceptions are changeable and will often be coloured by contemporary events or individual experience. The consensus was that more education is needed to encourage understanding at an earlier age of our role in upholding principles as imperative as the rule of law.
Our third discussion was around achieving social justice as lawyers. We discussed the fact that we can work in aid of social justice most effectively in circumstances where we are using our skills and training as lawyers. Several members of the audience told us of social justice initiatives they had developed (such as a work experience scheme for children from deprived backgrounds and a “hack” to debunk the legal barriers around using solar energy).
We were honoured to have Christina Blacklaws, the Vice President of the Law Society, announce the launch of Just Lawyers after our roundtable discussions. She spoke with much enthusiasm of the website as an empowerment tool that could help lawyers to become leaders of justice in society and as a forum in which to seek inspiration and inspire one another. Our many thanks to her and to the Law Society for hosting our launch!
Evening at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights
In May 2018, the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights hosted an evening for Junior Lawyers Against Poverty in Oxford. We heard from Kate O’Regan, Director of the Bonavero Institute, Shirley Shipman, Principal Lecturer and Programme Lead in Law at Oxford Brookes, Joss Saunders, General Counsel at Oxfam GB, Adrian Henderson, Co-Chair of Oxford Lawyers Against Poverty, and Tom Giles, Partner at Turpin and Miller. We were able to speak with some of the students who attended, including members of the Human Rights Forum at Mansfield College and the Oxford University Amnesty International Society. It was wonderful to see so much interest in the work of Lawyers Against Poverty and exchange thoughts about how we can work to engage a wider group of students committed to combatting the injustice of poverty. We hope to work together to take Junior Lawyers Against Poverty further forward in Oxford.
Drinks at Baker McKenzie
In March 2018, Lawyers Against Poverty held a drinks event at Baker McKenzie to welcome our new Co-Chairs, Kirsty Wilson and Richard Dyton. Kirsty is a Partner in the Corporate Department at Baker McKenzie and Richard is a Partner and the Head of Pro Bono at Simmons & Simmons. Together they have much experience of and enthusiasm for pro bono projects and we look forward to developing Lawyers Against Poverty with the benefit of their leadership.
Strategic Litigation in Practice
In February 2018, Oxfam organised a conference on Strategic Litigation in Practice alongside the University of Oxford Bonavero Institute of Human Rights and the Oxford Human Rights Hub to consider the opportunities and challenges around using strategic litigation as means of achieving change and to create an international community of practice of those involved with such work.
The conference included sessions on the ethics and politics of strategic litigation, the ability to achieve community empowerment through strategic litigation, defensive uses and different models of strategic litigation, the employment of extra-territorial, universal or other forms of jurisdiction and the use of regional and international fora.
Lawyers Against Poverty was able to invite Gaye Sowe, the Executive Director of the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, with whom we are currently in collaboration on a case, to consider the commonalities and the differences in how strategic litigation has been used across the world in the context of anti-colonial struggles and contemporary geo-politics.
We hope that you will tell your colleagues and friends about Lawyers Against Poverty. Organising your own local event is a very effective way of raising awareness of the need for access to justice in developing communities. We can share useful information and materials with you and will of course answer any queries you may have. Please email us if you would like to find out more.