Something in common

Commonwealth Lawyers Conference: February 2011 saw India hosting  the 17th Commonwealth Lawyers’ Conference. Nichola Higgins reports.

Hyderabad, the sixth most populous city in India combines bustling bazaars and statuesque mosques with a major centre for the IT industry in India (earning the city the sobriquet “Cyberabad”).  In February, it played host to the 17th Commonwealth Lawyers’ Conference, during which over 700 lawyers, academics and judges descended on Hyderabad between 5th and 9th February 2011. Lawyers have much to learn from the comparative experience of other commonwealth countries and to facilitate such learning the CLA holds a biannual conference as well as regional events.

This was the first conference in India for more than 40 years.  It was fitting that India - the second fastest growing economy in the world, the largest democracy in the world, and home to over a billion people - played host to a conference the theme of which was: “The rule of law in emerging economies: challenges and opportunities”.

In covering the theme of the rule of law, the programme included topics such as constitutionalism as the key to democracy and economic growth,  corporate governance and globalisation, and access to justice. There were also discrete discussions on the development and enforcement of competition law, environmental law and sustainable development, confronting corruption in the Commonwealth, Islamic finance and future models for delivering legal services, a topic with particular resonance for the Bar Council delegation.

The rule of law - India’s success story

Two themes stood out from the key note speeches given by a long list of eminent lawyers from throughout the Commonwealth.  The first was to celebrate the success of the rule of law and democracy in an emerging economy such as India. Speeches from the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and from the Chief Justice, the Hon. Mr. Justice Kapadia highlighted the interdependency between the rule of law, democracy and the economy and included a positive affirmation that the rule of law can and does advance economic growth.

The rule of law – its current state within the Commonwealth

The second was to analyse the current state of the rule of law within the Commonwealth.  Sir Sydney Kentridge QC  said in his paper, that “what is certain is the content of the rule of law has expanded”.  This expansion in the last fifty or sixty years is a result of a recognition that certain individual rights are “fundamental”.  Sir Sydney noted that the rule of law is progressing but that even civilised societies and governments do not always find it easy to live up to it.  This is exemplified, for example, by the indefinite detention of suspects without trial by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11.  There is never any room for complacency with regard to the rule of law; “at no time and in no country can we take the rule of law for granted”.

Sir Sydney went on to say that human rights are not absolute rights for the benefit of any one individual. They must be balanced against competing rights and the current battle ground for the rule of law lies in the fight against terrorism.

Lord Neuberger, however, giving a  speech on protecting human rights in an age of insecurity  noted that the difference between liberty and security is a chimera.  One cannot properly exist without the other.  

Upholding the rule of law

Reports on the state of the rule of law in their respective countries were given by Albie Sachs of South Africa, Graham Leung of Fiji and Tinoziva Bere, President of the Law Society in Zimbabwe.  Theirs were extraordinary and humbling accounts of the lengths to which they had stretched to uphold the rule of law and to protect the rights and physical safety of their clients, risking exile, persecution and even their lives in the process.

Bere, in particular, recounted holding 24 hour vigils outside a police station to ensure that his client was not removed to a clandestine location without his knowledge.  He, and many like him in Zimbabwe, have been subjected to persecution and threatened with violence as a result of their insistence that basic human rights be upheld. A Bar Council Working Group, led by Desmond Browne QC, continues to develop training projects to support the Zimbabwean profession.

A time for reflection

The Commonwealth Lawyers’ Conference is a time to reflect on the challenges and changes facing Commonwealth countries as a whole.  It is interesting to note that the United Kingdom is not alone in its concern regarding the oversupply of lawyers both generally and in the number of those seeking to join the ranks of the profession.  Maintaining and assessing quality is an aim which is shared by several countries, including Hong Kong and India.  The formulation and implementation of the Quality Assurance for Advocates scheme (QASA) in England and Wales is therefore being watched with great interest abroad.

The Conference was also an opportunity to showcase the best of the legal profession in the United Kingdom.  Representatives of COMBAR were out in force and the UK was well represented with papers delivered by Lord Hester of Herne Hill QC on honour crimes and forced marriages, Sir Declan Morgan QC, Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland on judicial independence, Desmond Hudson, Chief Executive of the Law Society on the ethics of professional conduct, our own Chairman of the Bar, Peter Lodder QC, on corporate criminal liability, Colin Nicholls QC on corruption and Helen Malcom QC on achieving a work life balance to name but a very small number.

The Bar Council stand attracted a constant hub of people interested in developments at the Bar in England and Wales.  In particular, Bar Council guides on “Barristers in International Arbitration 2011/2012” and “The Bar Guide” proved extremely popular, highlighting the fact that demand for the services of the Bar abroad is greater than ever and that the efforts of the International Secretariat of the Bar Council to promote the Bar internationally are bearing fruit.

Delegates Reception

As part of its growing programme to create international practice opportunities for the Bar, the Bar Council hosted a very successful networking reception for conference delegates held on 7th February at the Westin Hotel.  The evening provided an opportunity for the more than 25 barristers attending the Conference to meet other practitioners, judges and officials from many different jurisdictions in a more relaxed atmosphere.  The Bar Council is grateful to Christian Wisskirchen and Rukaiya Bhegani from its International Team for the flawless organisation of the event.

CLA - its need for young lawyers

The CLA is a force for the advancement of the rule of law throughout the Commonwealth and the biannual conferences are the principal forum for the sharing of ideas and experiences throughout the legal profession of the Commonwealth.  However, they are also a major opportunity to meet international practitioners from common law backgrounds, who have a need for barristers’ advisory and advocacy services. Whilst senior practitioners are already engaging effectively with the CLA in respect of both “values” and “trade”, there was a notable shortage of young lawyers attending the conference in Hyderabad. It is crucial that the CLA does what it can to attract more young lawyers to its organisation; it could begin by adding a young lawyer agenda to its programme for the next biannual conference in Cape Town in 2013.  It is important for young lawyers in the Commonwealth to have a medium through which to debate and discuss matters of common application (training and oversupply of lawyers being but two examples) and to build their professional networks.  However, it is even more important to instruct the future leaders of the legal professions of the Commonwealth in the same principles of respect and adherence to the rule of law.  By doing so, the CLA can only strengthen the bond between its own members and further embed the understanding and application of the rule of law among the lawyers of the Commonwealth.

The conference’s message

To conclude, the conference’s message was encapsulated by Sir Sydney when quoting the words of Lord Bingham: “in a world divided by differences of nationality, race, colour, religion and wealth, [the rule of law] is one of the greatest unifying factors….it remains an ideal but an ideal worth striving for in the interests of good governance and peace at home and in the world at large”.

Nichola Higgins 15 New Bridge Street
Chairman of the Young Barristers’ Committee 2011



The Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association: The Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association (CLA) is an international organisation which seeks to “promote and maintain the rule of law throughout the Commonwealth by ensuring that an independent and efficient legal system, with the highest standards of ethics and integrity serves the people of the Commonwealth.

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