Pro bono & community action: Bakers partner aids the UN on asylum for refugee objectors

Baker & McKenzie‘s partner in charge of pro bono, Tom Cassells, is hoping to lead a pro bono push in London. This initiative follows his work on several key test cases for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Along with specialist immigration lawyer, sole practitioner Wesley Gryk, Cassells was appointed as the commissioner’s legal representative in London 18 months ago.

The appointment will ensure the UN’s voice is heard in important immigration cases, such as the landmark Sepet & Anor v Secretary of State for the Home Depart-ment, which concluded with the House of Lords in favour of the Home Office.

The case asked whether conscientious objectors to compulsory military service could be granted asylum in the UK under the Geneva Convention, as well as Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Cassells and Gryk advised the UNHCR on the interpretation of this convention and ensured it made the right applications to intervene.

The case involved two Kurds who objected to forced service in the Turkish army.

While the Lords agreed that asylum could be granted to conscientious objectors, they concluded that the applicants did not have a deep-seated objection to all military service or an objection based on religious belief. Their reluctance to serve was based on their opposition of Turkish government policy towards the Kurdish community.The firm Litigation partner Cassells, who heads Baker & McKenzie’s London pro bono efforts, says he is keen to “drag pro bono out of the disputes ghetto”. While property and employment groups appear to have no problems finding pro bono work, for corporate partners it is far more problematic. However, a recent appointment to provide commercial advice to international organisation Save the Children shows that the firm is finally moving in the right direction.

In addition to pro bono efforts, the firm has founded a group called Community Action Skills and Time to assist the community with non-legal work. It also has a fund-raising group called Make A Difference, headed by IT partner Christina Demetriades.

Cassells is also keen to import pro bono initiatives that the firm has pioneered in the US. These include the Partners to Serve scheme, which encourages and assists clients with their pro bono work.The Lawyer verdictWhile the firm’s pro bono work is firmly entrenched in the US, the firm’s UK and Australian offices have also made some important advances. Baker & McKenzie’s global coverage obviously creates problems with co-ordinating pro bono efforts across different legal cultures and it seems that this is an approach that could be pursued more proactively. Cassells’ efforts to link up with his US colleagues are commendable and his determination to drive forward London’s pro bono work is clear.