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One of the three pillars of our Global Pro Bono Practice is promoting the rule of law.
Ian Forrester discusses the challenges and opportunities.

Why did you decide to increase the Firm’s focus on rule of law projects? We want our pro bono practice to be aligned with the needs of society, to correspond to the things we are good at and to give satisfaction to our people and our clients. We have an exceptional global reach and are leaders in international public law, so it was natural to look for ways we could promote the rule of law around the world. We also focus on providing access to justice and serving the needs of leading non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

How do you decide what projects to pursue? There are clearly enormous needs. Much of the world’s investment in rule of law projects is not very effective and sometimes completely wasted. That’s very sad, but it’s true. We’re not saying there’s no point in helping, but we are saying it’s important to be very selective.

We target our projects by topic, by country and by the NGO partners with which we work. We don’t get involved unless we have a reasonable level of certainty that the work will be done well and have a good chance of being genuinely helpful. This work depends on the goodwill and support of the state. Many governments are keen to learn and welcome the tools and information we can provide. The quality of our NGO interlocutors is also critically important.

What form does the work take? We focus on providing tools and training for judges, lawyers and parliamentarians who ask for help with specific legislation, rather than advocating for causes to governments that may or may not be open to such advocacy. Part of the task is research, part is drafting, part is teaching and part is inspirational—if that’s not too trite and immodest.

It’s tempting for a big firm accustomed to western litigation habits to assume that courts around the world are well equipped. The truth is that many courts are miserably under-resourced in terms of access to case law, law reports, copying and printing facilities, and the rest of the infrastructure we take for granted.

We are seeing a great demand for crossborder research summarizing vast amounts of case law, legislation or regulation. This input can be of real value to governments and their advisers. These research projects are not a theoretical exercise. They have a very practical benefit. They show judges, lawyers and legislators that other countries have considered questions—often basic issues—of domestic violence, access to water, healthcare, and the like, and how they have addressed them.

We are not the only firm to try to help address these needs, but we are certainly one of the largest providers of information for struggling judges and lawyers in emerging democracies. Our lawyers are able to do this research from their desks, even in jurisdictions with few local pro bono opportunities, and we encourage them to do it in collaboration with clients. It makes use of our global footprint and the enormous number of languages our people speak. It is a highly cost-effective pro bono activity that we hope has a material impact on the rule of law and thus on citizens’ lives.

Similarly, we help emerging democracies draft or improve legislation. They don’t want just to duplicate the law of Paraguay, Russia or Minnesota. That might work, but what they really need is a summary of relevant practice and recommendations tailored to their particular circumstances. This year, we took on just this sort of project to help an African nation develop its mental health legislation.

Finally, our people deliver training for judges and lawyers in a select number of countries where there are few opportunities for continuing legal education and often no bar association to provide support or establish norms. It is important to be particularly selective with these projects, but there is no question that our people find them energizing, and we have seen the participants report, months later, that they are still using the insights and tools from the training.

What issues are you targeting? Gender-based violence is a serious problem in many societies. Empowering women legally and economically is also now well accepted as an important condition for political stability and economic growth. We have chosen this topic as a particular focus for our work. Nearly 200 of our lawyers are compiling a database of human trafficking cases in almost 150 countries, which will give judges and prosecutors in Mombasa or Bangkok access to how courts around the world have handled such cases. In a separate project, we have written almost 500 summaries of cases touching on the UN’s definition of gender-based violence in more than 25 countries. Our work helps reassure isolated and overburdened judges that their basic instinct is right—that certain kinds of behavior, such as wife-beating, shouldn’t be acceptable in any society.

We have also been developing more work on freedom of information and the rights of detainees, as well as helping countries set up the basic regulatory framework for competition law. One small African country was faced with questions related to the effective operations of its ports; specifically, can a government favor its own dockside services in the port it controls? That’s a classic problem and we were able to advise them effectively.

We do turn projects down, but we accept projects on a wide range of interesting topics. We did a global project on animal rights recently, which was very popular with our associates, and another on water systems.

Realistically, what difference can law firms make? There are many, many obstacles to the rule of law around the world; history teaches us not to be surprised, but it also teaches that change can happen. What’s needed is better legal infrastructure and information, better realization by judges of their duty, better recognition by the government that the courts are there to settle disputes and that sometimes that means the government has to lose in court. Many resources are being deployed by various entities on these questions today. We play a very small part. But we do see some evidence that our work makes a difference. It’s like planting crops—some grow, some don’t—but, step by step, if there are enough of the right conditions, the rule of law does take hold.

Our Rule of Law Projects

Watch a video of Ian talking about the pro bono practice

To mark the 2011 UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the Rochford and Castle Point Domestic Abuse Panel displayed 170 pairs of shoes to represent the number of women, children and men killed due to domestic violence in the UK every year.

Ian Forrester

Ian Forrester, QC, is the Firm's Global Pro Bono Practice Leader.

Ian practices European law, litigating trade, competition and regulatory cases before the European Courts, and has particular experience in due process and human rights cases.