PILnet conference round up

Richard Pitkethly, LawWorks’ Head of Learning Practice, attended the annual PILnet conference, he reports here.

This year’s PILnet Global Forum took place in a sunny Budapest in October. PILnet , now celebrating its 20th anniversary, supports public interest legal work, pro bono, legal education and access to justice globally - the 2017 PILnet conference was a truly global event, drawing individuals from across the globe, including South Africa, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Japan and China.

Those attending shared their experience of challenging political contexts, including stories of state sponsored killings or the long-term imprisonment of individuals engaged in human rights and pro bono activity. But there were also powerful lessons for the UK about freedom, the rule of law, pro bono and democracy from countries such as Poland, South Africa and China to name a few. Given the rule of law theme, the location of the conference was apposite: along the roadsides into the centre of Budapest the Hungarian government had taken out  posters denouncing George Soros, the Hungarian-American philanthropist, founder (and principal funder) of the Open Society Foundation, based in New York and the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. CEU was founded on the principles of an open society, and Professor Michael Ignatieff, CEU’s President and Rector, spoke powerfully about the rule of law and the challenging atmosphere in Hungary for an organisation such as CEU. Earlier this year the European Commission ruled that a Hungarian law governing the legal status of CEU was incompatible with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. According to Professor Ignatieff the Hungarian government’s legislative actions left CEU in a sort of legal “limbo” and risked undermining the rule of law in Hungary.

The rule of law

Professor Ignatieff also spoke about the features of civil society which sustain the rule of law, identifying the key elements as: democratic and accountable governance, freedom of association, access to independent justice and an open media. Looking across Europe and beyond he observed that each one of these elements was under strain somewhere. In respect of the UK, he was particularly critical of the infamous Daily Mail article denouncing High Court judges who determined Gina Millar’s legal challenge of the government’s decision to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (which sets out the process of leaving the EU) as “enemies of the people”. According to Professor Ignatieff, this sort of language, repeated in the US, Turkey and elsewhere, turned healthy adversarial debate into a conflict among ‘enemies,’ with the latter representing a challenge to the rule of law.

Approaching the rule of law from an altogether different perspective and range of experiences, Vivek Maru, founder of Namati, a not-for-profit organisation which supports a network of so-called ‘barefoot” lawyers’ or ‘community paralegals’, spoke alongside Professor Ignatieff, delivering an inspiring message about access to justice and its role in supporting the rule of law and economic development. Vivek spoke of individuals in India and South Africa who had received free legal services from ‘barefoot lawyers’ operating locally. Whilst the examples he gave concerned land-rights cases and environmental abuses by corporations affecting poor and minority communities in Asia and Africa, his essential message has a strong resonance in the UK regarding access to justice and pro bono. In particular, Vivek spoke of the need for the legal professions to “cede some of their prestige” and control, as well as to embrace an ‘access to justice emergency’, in order to ensure that everyone in society has access to legal help.

Strategic litigation

The Open Society Justice Initiative launched its report, Strategic Litigation Impacts, at the conference. A panel consisting of Helen Duffy, Gieskes Professor of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights at Leiden University, Jérémie Gilbert, Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Roehampton (and author of the report) and James Goldston, Executive Director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, discussed the report’s findings and responded during a lively question and answer session. 

The report endorses strategic litigation, as one of a number of tools for advancing justice, even if it inevitably entails both successes and failures. The report also shows that measuring impact in a way which both acknowledges and engages with criticisms and shortcomings, as well as marshalling evidence of successes, can be a powerful resource for third sector organisations involved in advancing change. The report stands as a useful example of what impact assessment, when done well, looks like; essentially, it takes time, quite a lot of space and patient argument, suggesting that pro bono organisations relying exclusively on ‘pro bono hours’ and story-telling might in some circumstances do better in making their case.


At a key session on ‘Tech’, Kate Fazio of Justice Connect (JC), Australia, spoke about JC’s use of technology as a tool to scale the impact in the delivery of pro bono legal services, in this particular case acting as a clearing house, bringing lawyers and members of the public together. Cherilyn Tan of Asia Law Network (ALN), Singapore, spoke about ALN’s marketing platform, Quick Consult, that lets anyone call a lawyer to get legal advice for a ‘transparent, flat and affordable fee within 2 working days’. Both examples of technology, it was said, could be adapted for NGOs of all sizes.

The discussion that followed centred on the need to proceed with caution when taking on ‘Tech’ as well as concerns around losing the individualised touch, and the so-called ‘digital divide’. In this regard, Keith Hiatt of Benetech, U.S.A., played devil’s advocate in a presentation which urged caution on NGO’s thinking about taking on new ‘Tech’. In his view, NGOs should only attempt ‘Tech’ alongside relevant and readily available technical assistance; it’s often expensive and often goes wrong, leading to NGOs being worse off as compared to when they “started down the ‘Tech’ road”.

A straw poll of organisations indicated that some disruption is inevitable, technical support (and therefore often funding) is key, and that generally it is worth the strain only when an organisation wants to do much more than it is currently doing, rather than simply transferring current processes and data to a new ‘Tech’ platform.

Pro bono in Europe

A DLA Piper sponsored report, “The Growth of Pro Bono in Europe,” was also launched during the PILnet conference. The report describes a burgeoning pro bono culture, often as a consequence of decreasing access to justice, but also identifies pro bono gaps among major law firms, highlights concerns about the reliability of legal research and impact assessment and firms’ conflicts of interests policies and practices. The report urges a scaling up of pro bono, the development of ‘secondary specialisation’ models as well as the expansion of pro bono outside major Capitals and cities.