Moving up to the frontline

With an ambitious president and the first new executive director in 15 years, what direction is the International Bar Association going to take?

Think of the IBA and you may think of a monolithic organisation which provides practical support but lacks dynamism. Its two new chief officers hope not.

“Sometimes the IBA has been criticised as being a networking club for the profession,” says IBA president Ross Harper, an industrious Scot who after being a criminal lawyer for 15 years founded a 22-partner firm and took up a part-time academic post at the University of Strathclyde. After starting his two-year term as IBA president in 1994, Harper has clear goals.

“I want to see the organisation more involved in active issues and want to see the council in more of a policy making role,” he says.

He points to a recent motion on establishing an international Criminal Court which has been lodged with the United Nations as an example of the kind of profile and involvement he wants the IBA to have.

“We represent two and a half million lawyers so we want to lend support and have an impact on matters,” he insists.

Other important motions are due for consideration in the September conference of the Section on Business Law.

Money laundering is one. “This is a matter of international concern – we need more international support to facilitate detection,” Harper says. A protest against Japan's system of custody preventing access to legal advice will be another.

Larger plans are also afoot and the establishment of the Human Rights Institute is involving a great deal of his time.

“The organisation is very active in human rights. We've always supported lawyers in cases with governments and provided trial observers in trials of judges.

“But the institute is a way of strengthening individual commitment to human rights and developing greater expertise in the area.”

Also under way is the country twinning programme under which organisation members assist the profession of an undeveloped country to establish legal aid programmes, provide education, books and other support. Norway has already been “twinned” with Uganda and other programmes are planned.

These efforts place big demands on the IBA's administration and management, now the responsibility of executive director Paul Hoddinott, appointed in January. Hoddinott says the London staff of 38 is small for an organisation of the IBA's size and which undertakes its range of activities.

“They're all hard pressed with the membership growing strongly and new efforts like the Human Rights Institute,” he says. “But it's challenging to face the problems of growth – and preferable to presiding over the administration of a dwindling organisation.”

A former rear-admiral in the British Navy, Hoddinott's experience includes a healthy array of international postings including service as an attache for the British Embassy in Washington and working with NATO in Brussels. He is hardly daunted by having no legal qualifications: “With 17,000 individual members there's no shortage of legal advice if I need it.”

Nine months into his IBA job Hoddinott says he has found plenty of opportunity to use his diplomatic skills, for example in an attempt to establish a conference with Middle Eastern lawyers or in an encounter with a deeply divided Nigerian profession.

Apart from the immediate practical problem of finding new offices, he is keen to extend the range of services to members. “We want to upgrade the computer support for members and have on-line services,” he explains. “The minimum would be so members could find out which publications are on offer and order them on-line and sign up for conferences and committees.”

Services such as video conferencing could also be used. “They'll never replace personal conferences but they could be useful for instance for panel members to confer and rehearse before a conference.”

Both president and executive director envisage greater development of specialised groups both for methods of practice and regions. A government lawyers group has recently been founded and after the establishment of the Asia Pacific Lawyers group in 1992, this year has seen a special focus of activities in Africa. Next year it will be Latin America.

“We'll probably see more geographical groups,” predicts Harper. “The organisation will help lawyers in an area focus on their special interests and problems and help them meet lawyers in other countries. Lawyers need both forums.”

Whatever the practical difficulties of the projects ahead the vision remains clear. “We want the council, which is the governing body, to become meaningful in international law terms mainly by the support of international law reform,” says Harper.

“We need to initiate more international law reform projects. Lawyers have social responsibilities too.”

Diana Bentley is a freelance journalist.