The conference passes its halfway point, and you find yourself starting to greet like old friends people you only met for the first time the day before. Everyone seems at home now in the SECC, and I must have visited all the seminar rooms at some point during the various streamed sessions. Meanwhile the vast Hall 5 easily absorbs the registration desks, the exhibitors (who like being en route to the feeding stations, it seems), space for serving coffee and lunch, and just standing and chatting to people, and if you want to sit down there is still about half the floor area given over to tables. From the facilities point of view it's a good venue.
And so to the day's business. Pride of place must go to the keynote speaker who launched the day, Hina Jilani. Not a name, I confess, I had heard before the conference details were released, but someone deserving of the utmost respect for her commitment to fighting oppression and unfairness.
Ms Jilani founded the first women's law firm in Pakistan, and the first legal aid centre (as she called it) there, and for many years has stood up for the rights of women and disadvantaged groups, often in the face of hostility. However her wide-ranging address covered the actions in recent decades of dedicated lawyers against harsh regimes (legal and/or government) in many countries, including the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, South Africa, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. Insisting that the rule of law must not mean allowing it to underpin unjust situations, she provided good advice even for those in the developed world who seek to challenge unfair government policies.
Test cases must be sound ones, she counselled. And you have to be constantly putting pressure on the government, building on any judgments in your favour. Courts have been successfully used to “sensitise” the judiciary and make visible the injustices of the law, both legal and social, “putting a face on these” by publicising real individual cases and thus challenging the offensive nature of the laws.
For each of the countries mentioned, she explained how carefully targeted action – sometimes over an extended period – could produce results even (in some cases) during periods of military dictatorship, and how good record keeping helped bring to account those responsible for violations of rights, after democracy had been restored. This inspiring woman should surely be among those considered for global humanitarian awards.
Then we were back to our streams. I opted for child abduction, as a contemporary legal problem likely to throw up different issues depending on the jurisdiction. This was rewarded with revealing accounts of the position in Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan, each of which throw up a fair number of cases that also involve one of the UK jurisdictions. Sri Lanka has acceded to the Hague Convention, but this is not yet recognised by the UK, which it seems now has to act in step with other EU member states. (Practitioners beware that accession may not be enough in itself to bring a case under the Convention.) Pakistan has not acceded, but has a bilateral agreement with the UK, not given legal effect in Pakistan but one to which the courts will pay some heed. India has neither Convention regime nor other treaty, but judges may apply principles of comity to recognise orders made elsewhere. Presentations like this show the value of a cross-Commonwealth gathering.
That was followed by a session on “How will national law be influenced by Sharia law”, chaired by our own Lord Gill. While this was instructive as to the respective positions in Malaysia and Pakistan, it missed the opportunity to cover the controversy in which the Law Society of England & Wales found itself embroiled last year after it attempted to take account of Sharia law for certain purposes.
After lunch, “Adapt or die – the future of the legal profession” provided a further opportunity to air some familiar themes on alternative routes to the profession and types of legal job, while also providing a platform to explain the CILEX qualification south of the border. CILEX's Fran Edwards suggested the session title was too limiting: it should be “Adapt, die or lead”, she proposed.
We also heard again from Malcolm Mercer, the Ontario lawyer who featured in day 1, and who challenged us with some further reflections. Why is it, he asked, by way of example, that legal firms who once provided a broad general service to their communities are tending to confine themselves to areas such as crime, family, property or personal injury? And this as the areas of unmet legal need are growing and widening? Could it be partly due to our tight regulation of legal practice, which encourages lawyers' natural tendency to take a conservative approach? Is the traditional partnership structure also to blame, by encouraging short term profit taking at the expense of longer term investment? Stephen Gold then won some audience approval by suggesting that lawyers should be learning skills such as project management: “That hit the nail on the head”, responded one English solicitor. “What do clients really want? Not necessarily more at lower cost, but the right skills to do the job in the most efficient way.”
Finally for the day, a further human rights session featured three good presentations, from New Zealand, Australia and Namibia, on issues in taking on their respective governments – the New Zealand experience showing some remarkable parallels to recent experience in England & Wales, with restrictions on legal aid, government standing accused of limiting access to the courts etc. I have an interesting exercise ahead, drawing the threads together from the various human rights presentations I have heard, but it should be a worthwhile one.
Rounded off by a city centre reception jointly hosted by the Law Society Presidents from the three UK jurisdictions, the day has proved another one that has been full, varied, interesting and sociable. I'm not flagging yet!
Incidentally, there has been some speculation about the venue for the next conference, some people expecting it to be announced as this one closes. I have it on good authority that a decision is still a few months away, as tendering is underway again after a previously proposed location fell through.