A&O champions poor on water privatisation deals

The treatment of poor people by banks involved in water privatisation projects in developing countries is at the centre of influential recommendations drawn up by Allen & Overy (A&O) lawyers on a pro bono basis.

Some of the ideas were presented by the firm's London-based projects partner Jeff Delmon at the Kyoto conference in Japan and have since crystallised into recommendations due to be placed before a host of leading banks, including the World Bank.

The firm hopes its proposals will mean future privatisation projects will prioritise the interests of poor people, which, so far, have been largely overlooked. For instance, the poor are often subject to one-off and substantial water connection fees, which Delmon proposes should be paid over a period of time.

Their bills are often more than those imposed on the rich, and the alternative for those who cannot afford to connect is for a family member to spend a day queuing for water. There are also thorny legal-political questions so far left unanswered, such as squatters' access to water.

A&O's paper was commissioned by the charity WaterAid, which will lead future negotiations with banks, possibly with A&O acting as a moderator. A&O's research involved drawing up 15 case studies, 10 carried out in the field and five desk studies, of the impact of water privatisation on the poor. The examples included North America and states in South America, Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

Delmon said the banks' responses so far have been good, but “the challenge is in implementation”. The Lawyer verdict

The Lawyer verdict

The firm's commitment to pro bono, particularly by the London office, is commendable and imagination has been put into the selection and running of projects. The WaterAid project shows that its lawyers are willing to grapple with an issue that they are uniquely positioned to handle, which economists have tried to brush under the carpet. Keep the ball rolling.

The firm

Allen & Overy's pro bono and community affairs work is coordinated by Shankari Chandran, an Australian and UK-qualified lawyer who works out of the London office. The firm has seen a substantial growth in pro bono activity particularly out of London where 69 per cent of its fee-earners are involved compared with just 31 per cent in 1999.

In 2002, 48,799 hours of pro bono work was totted up by fee-earners firmwide, representing £10,797,907 worth of billable time. The London office alone did 30,000 hours in 2002, followed by the Belgium office which did 7,000 hours. Litigation trainees firmwide are the busiest pro bono workers, doing some 4,900 hours in 2002. In London, litigation fee-earners worked the hardest, with each contributing 70 hours in 2002, while banking and information, communications and media were bottom of the pile on nine hours apiece. David Mackie QC, A&O's litigation head, is the partner responsible for the firm's pro bono work.

Out of a list of projects, one of the most striking is Child Focus, carried out by 11 of the firm's European offices, which helps trace missing children and provides counselling to child abuse victims. It has also been working on the establishment of a Bar Association in the West Bank.