Pro bono reflections: Ten questions with Lionel Blackman

21 March 2017

1.    Please tell us about your day job and how this has informed your involvement in international pro bono projects.

I’m a criminal defence lawyer, and a senior partner at my own practice, specialising in criminal defence work since 1989.  I also undertake jury trials. 

Between 2004-2006, I undertook a Masters in Understanding and Securing International Human Rights.  As part of the course, I was required to do a secondment with a human rights NGO, so in September 2004, I volunteered to help re-establish the solicitors international human rights group. Awareness of international human rights law was surprisingly limited back then.  At the time the Law Society was relatively quiet and was running down its human rights department so we were filling a bit of a gap.  And that’s how I got involved in the international human rights movement and in pro bono projects. 
2.    You have recently been in Kyrgyzstan with the Equal Rights Trust.  What was the project's objective and what did you contribute to it? 

A barrister together with ERT had done an enormous amount of work to research and write a report on the state of discrimination in Kyrgyzstan. ERT take a very holistic view to the question of equality and discrimination.  A draft report was completed based on desk-research and in-country interviews.  ERT wanted to validate the report by an independent expert and to have the findings in the report reviewed before publication.  I was asked to be that expert given my knowledge of international human rights, coupled with my practical skills of interviewing people.

3.    Was it valuable to have an external pro bono lawyer involved in the way that you were and can you also tell us how you think ROLE’s support added value?

In this particular context, not being a member of ERT, not having read any of their publications before and not having been a part of their missions, I was independent of them.  I was accompanied by someone from ERT who did all the planning, but it was still important for me to make sure that no assumptions were made and to avoid reaching conclusions that were not properly substantiated.  As the report has been subject to quite a rigorous process of evaluation and validation, I hope it will pack a punch! 

I think that ROLE UK’s support is valuable because it has enabled weight to be added to the report. And this will better enable state bodies or NGOs that need ammunition to fight causes in Kyrgyzstan.

4.    Do you think it was important to have a UK expert involved?

Given the universality of the principles of equality, it’s not necessarily important to have a UK expert on such a project.  

That said, the perception remains even today, that the UK has one of the best legal systems in the world with the most independent minded judges, the best system of reporting court cases and compliance by state bodies to the rule of law.  So therefore yes, the drafting and validation of the report by British based experts gives it a UK stamp which allows it to travel further.  

5.    Could the same result have been achieved in another way?

In this case probably not.  We interviewed about 25 people in 5 days from 2 cities! It was important to interview people from different sectors, representing different minorities.   I don’t think it would have been feasible to do those by skype or email, I can’t see that that could have worked. Some witnesses were a little bit inhibited, people are afraid about who’s listening, or who’s watching. Some people have suffered persecution. You really need to be present when you’re interviewing witnesses as working face-to-face allows you to read body language and intuitively work out where to take the next question.  

6.    What other types of similar work have you been involved in and were you approached to be involved or was it self-driven work?

With ISLP, I spent 6 weeks in Myanmar embedded with a prototype criminal defence legal aid office in Mon state in the south east of Myanmar.  That was to deliver trainings in fair trial rights.  I’ve also done some other unpaid trial observations including in Kazakhstan, Egypt and more recently in Thailand.  In some cases, I was approached and in others, I saw some projects advertised and applied.   

7.    How much of a role do you think political/cultural/context awareness plays when providing technical assistance to rule of law programmes in developing countries?

This is an interesting question. In the UK, we have taken a step-by-step approach to equality law; we’ve had race relations law, sex discrimination law, and so on.  It is interesting to discuss whether Kyrgyzstan would be ready to adopt an all-embracing law with a holistic approach or whether you need to win over the argument with a step-by-step approach.

8.    But do you think international / external developments could play a role in pushing such changes forward? 

Yes certainly, they might. But equally an all-embracing law might become a piece of paper that everybody ignored.   Perhaps a discreet, targeted law on anti-discrimination could allow for mechanisms that are followed through and can then spread.  That was a point of some discussion between me and ERT and I could be wrong of course.  It may be the way to go in Kyrgyzstan, I don’t know. 

But beyond that, this question goes beyond my remit.  In this case, my role was to assess whether the evidence of discrimination was substantiated by interviewing people.  I was not assessing or validating final conclusions or recommendations. 

9.    Can you talk me through some of the challenges to be aware of when providing short-term support? 

This hasn’t been my experience, but it can be the case that pro bono lawyers might struggle allotting themselves sufficient preparation time for an assignment.  You could undertake a mission but it can be difficult to assess how much time will be required until you start the mission. That’s something that needs to be considered carefully. 

Whoever is building the pro bono briefing needs to assess the time, so that there can be a match.  If lawyers are busy and the time required is more than anticipated, then pro bono work could be placed on a back burner. So, this should be clarified earlier on.  

I think it’s important not to assume that the person is equipped to do the mission because they may not be. In my example, ERT fell within the umbrella of international human rights, but nevertheless was a specialist discipline within human rights. I had to spend a significant chunk of time re-learning and reading the draft report. And fortunately, I had time in the run up to the report. 

10.    What other things have you got coming up?

I’m going to deliver some lectures in Siberia next. These will be on the use of visuals in criminal trials and how advocates need to equip themselves with computer skills so they can present the visual side of cases to their advantage.

Thank you very much for your time Lionel. It’s been a really interesting conversation. We wish you all the best!

Further Reading: Looking for Harmony: Addressing Discrimination and Inequality in Kyrgyzstan

Image copyright: OSCE/Jonathan Perfect

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