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Using the law to drive social change around the world

Lawyers at Leigh Day speak at an international conference on strategic litigation

Shubhaa Srinivasan speaks at Litigating for Social Change conference
Rebekah blogs about human rights in the UK and internationally. You can follow Rebekah on twitter on @RebekahRead
On 19-21 October, NGOs, community activists, litigators, academics and funders with a focus on strategic litigation gathered in Belfast to share experiences and ideas at a conference titled ‘Litigating for Social Change’.  The conference was full of inspiring, challenging, encouraging and moving stories and contributions.  Below are 5 of the very many lessons which were learned during the fruitful, thought-provoking conference.
  1. Responding to, and engaging with social movements is the best way to ensure that litigation supports social change
On the first day of the conference Nurina Ally, executive director of Equal Education Law Centre in South Africa, spoke at a session on ‘How can Strategic Litigation Deliver Transformative Change?’ about the way in which the NGO has been working to defend and expand the political space to allow for social movements.  Nurina spoke of their inspiring work to support students who have been detained and mistreated as part of the #feesmustfall campaign, emphasising the need to respond to the development of social movements.
  1. Strategic litigation encourages Courts to recognise the human rights obligations of multinationals.
Shubhaa Srinivasan, a Partner in Leigh Day’s International & Group Claims Department, spoke on ‘The Right Time and the Right Case’, during which she considered the factors which need be considered when deciding whether to pursue a large, precedent-setting case.   Delegates were interested in the possibility of claims against multinational corporations which cause harm overseas and the potential this has for creating tangible change.
  1. Litigating slavery and forced labour claims requires creativity and diligence.
Rebekah Read, a solicitor in Leigh Day’s International & Group Claims Department was invited to speak a panel talk ‘Slavery and Forced Labour: Ending Impunity’, which was hosted by the Freedom Fund.  During this fruitful discussion, which focused mainly on legal pathways to tackling slavery and forced labour, the panel talked about the need to be inventive in bringing cases in this area, with little case law and complicated supply chains making such cases a challenge.  The panel talked about how the concept of slavery has evolved to be seen now as being about the exploitation of an undue level of control over others.
  1. To maximise the impact of a case, it is important to frame it in the most effective terms.
Baher Azmy from the Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York spoke on a number of platforms about the work they have been doing to create positive social change.  The stop and frisk litigation, for example, led to a reform process which included input from the affected communities.  Baher talked about the importance of framing a case in the most effective way, citing the example of labelling widespread sexual abuse as a crime against humanity in the case of SNAP v the Pope, et al.
  1. Country-specific environmental cases relating to some of the most grievous practices can make an impact internationally.
Shubhaa Srinivasan also contributed to a panel talk on ‘Strategic Litigation to Promote Environmental Rights’.  At this talk NGOs, academics and lawyers spoke about the way in which the law can be harnessed to drive for better environmental practices.  There were discussions about how cases relating to environmental destruction caused by multinationals in Nigeria, Colombia and the Ivory Coast has led to an advance in environmental rights worldwide. 
The conference demonstrated to us the importance of strategic litigation in supporting social change, which means that lawyers, with and through the immense support provided by NGOs working in the field, can assist social movements and protect and promote human rights internationally, which is something that should be encouraged and protected.
For more contributions, the hashtags which were used at the conference were #litigating4change and #slcBelfast16

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