Oxford Pro Bono Publico Symposium: Public Interest Lawyering in the Twenty-First Century

Kate Mitchell - 26th May 2014

On 24 May 2014, Oxford Pro Bono Publico (OPBP) hosted its inaugural symposium on ‘Public Interest Lawyering in the Twenty-First Century’. Fifty students, academics and practitioners gathered at Pembroke College, Oxford, to discuss the challenges facing pro bono and public interest lawyers today, as well as the impact of OPBP’s pro bono research over the past fourteen years.

The first panel – comprising Helen Mountfield QC (Matrix Chambers), Polly Glynn (Partner, Deighton Pierce Glynn Solictors) and Jo Renshaw (Partner and Head of Immigration, Turpin & Miller LLP), and chaired by Associate Professor Liora Lazarus – discussed ‘Public Interest Lawyering in Times of Austerity in the United Kingdom’. The discussion centred around the impact of recent cuts to the civil legal aid budget in the UK. A sombre picture was painted: the recent cuts, made ostensibly on the grounds of ‘austerity’, are shutting out deserving individuals from the civil justice system and significantly impairing the ability of public interest lawyers to take on important cases and provide assistance to those most in need. In the face of these challenges, our panellists and conference attendees canvassed a range of ideas about how lawyers could continue to promote the public interest and support those no longer eligible for legal aid, including fostering partnerships with civil society organisations and the private sector, rethinking the court costs system, and not shying away from being ‘activist’ lawyers.

After lunch, the second panel discussed stories of impact from those at the forefront of public interest lawyering, focussing on right to education litigation in South Africa. Chaired by Chris McConnachie, Former Chairperson at OPBP (2012-13), the panel featured Sarah Sephton (Director, Grahamstown Office, Legal Resources Centre, South Africa) and Brad Brockman (General Secretary, Equal Education, South Africa). Panelists and conference attendees engaged in thought-provoking discussions on the relationship between civil society activism and public interest litigation, and on the role of comparative and international law research in LRC and Equal Education’s advocacy and campaigning.  OPBP would like to thank the Canon Collins Trust for generously sponsoring the second panel.

Justice Abella of the Supreme Court of Canada and Professor Sandra Fredman then discussed public interest litigation from the perspective of the judiciary. In an engaging and passionate discussion, Justice Abella spoke of the important role all lawyers play in promoting and protecting the public interest and access to justice, and shared her thoughts on the critical role of interveners in public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of Canada.

The final panel – featuring Jonathan Cooper OBE (Doughty Street Chambers and Human Dignity Trust) and Meghna Abraham (Head of Special Projects, Amnesty International) and chaired by Dr Miles Jackson, OPBP Executive Committee member and Former Chairperson (2009-10) – discussed the impact of comparative law research and advocacy. Jonathan and Meghna shared their experiences of how international and comparative law research has contributed to their work, and the particular role OPBP has played over the years. The panel provided an opportunity to reflect on methods of, approaches to and challenges for pro bono research, and to explore new ways in which OPBP and other pro bono organisations can maximise their impact.

Between panel discussions, two former Chairs of OPBP, Chris McConnachie (2012-2013) and Laura Hilly (2010-2011), gave a presentation outlining some of the key achievements of OPBP over the past fourteen years. Chris and Laura highlighted that during this time, OPBP has engaged over 500 graduate students to undertake more than 55 pro bono projects, entailing over 10,000 hours of pro bono work. Since 2010, OPBP has also provided grants toward unpaid or poorly paid internships, exposing Oxford graduate students to public interest law organisations around the world, and providing these organisations with the benefit of students’ outstanding legal skills. Thanks to the generous support from the Sigrid Rausing Trust, in 2014 OPBP has been able to award about £14,000 to nine Oxford graduate students to undertake internships over the summer. Associate Professor Liora Lazarus announced the recipients of these grants at the conclusion of the Symposium.

The Symposium was an incredibly valuable opportunity to discuss and reflect upon OPBP’s past and present achievements and future direction. Thank you to all of the past and present Executive Committee members who organised and hosted the event, to the wonderful speakers who shared their ideas and experiences, and to the Sigrid Rausing Trust and Canon Collins Trust for the generous grant which enabled the Symposium to take place.

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