Pro bono is vital for lawyers establishing rule of law overseas

There are many things we take for granted in the UK. Ironically, one of the most overlooked is also one of the most fundamental – the rule of law.

We expect – and rightly so – the absence of corruption, an independent, impartial judiciary, the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair and public trial without undue delay, the strict protection of confidential communications between lawyer and client, equality of all before the law and a transparent process accessible to all. These elemental building blocks form the bedrock upon which so much of our society rests, including our international standing as a leading centre of finance and commerce.

Many countries simply do not have the benefit of this foundation. As well as the implications for the fair treatment of individuals, the effects can also be measured in the lack of certainty for investment, and this commercial reality conspires to prevent the economic fillip these countries often so badly need.

Internationally focused pro bono work is one way the legal profession can answer the call across the world to advance the rule of law. In fact, I have been heartened to discover how many law firms are becoming engaged in promoting the rule of law through pro bono work internationally.

A session at the recent annual International Bar Association (IBA) Conference in Chicago examined the different ways in which international pro bono work is being conducted already. One conclusion was that we should explore whether we can bring together the global law firms that want to undertake such work and the local bar associations, the legal systems of which would benefit from the help.

The IBA intends to facilitate this by starting on a modest scale, by building a database to operate as a ‘clearing house’ designed to pair international pro bono demand and supply more effectively. This will be offered first to the IBA’s ‘group member’ firms and selected bar associations. The more difficult part will be to engage the bar associations. Lawyers in so many developing countries are under such pressure, and their bar associations are so short of resources, that it is very difficult for them to respond to an initiative of this nature.

The world’s legal profession needs to mobilise in support of the rule of law. Most successful lawyers are kept so busy by their clients that it is hard to see what more they can do, yet the increasing interest in pro bono work suggests that there is an acceptance that more can be done. Perhaps we need to emphasise more strongly the nexus between respect for the rule of law and the benign investment climate that it necessarily presents to the international community. Social and economic stability is a prerequisite to the attraction of investment.

A report published by the IBA last month (September) highlights the disconcerting decline of the rule of law in the Gambia. It details the threats to the independence of the judiciary and the ability of lawyers to exercise their profession freely, and highlights the recent deterioration in freedom of expression. This is merely the latest of a string of similar reports on different countries in recent years. If these fundamental principles cannot be relied on, to what extent can international companies seriously be expected to invest?
It takes a long time to build a democracy. It takes even longer to build a culture of respect for the rule of law. These precious characteristics of the kind of society in which we all want to live grow out of the history and culture of the country in question.

These should not and cannot be imposed from outside, but the legal profession can do much to help such countries construct the framework and, in turn, help to bring about an environment in which international investors can bring a much-needed injection of capital.

Francis Neate, president, International Bar Association