Supporting the Rule of Law: How Can UK Pro Bono Legal Technical Assistance Help Internationally?

7 December 2018

ROLE UK, a DFID-funded programme of Advocates for International Development (A4ID), works with several organisations to provide strategic and sustainable technical assistance to strengthen the rule of law. Through the pro bono work of hundreds of legal professionals including judges, barristers, government lawyers, in-house lawyers and NGOs, the ROLE UK team has learned that while extraordinary work is underway, people across the legal and development sectors are often unaware of the valuable work being done by others across those sectors.

As part of Global Pro Bono Week 2018, and in an effort to bring people together and encourage collaborative working, ROLE UK invited four of its assignment partners – Equal Rights Trust, Bar Human Rights Committee, Standing International Forum of Commercial Courts (SIFoCC), and Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) – to deliver presentations on their work and the impact of ROLE UK support.

This post is a brief outline of the work of ROLE UK and what ROLE UK’s partners have achieved. We hope it will inspire the legal community to consider how to engage further on international pro bono technical assistance, develop new and innovative partnerships both in the UK and internationally, and coordinate to create an emerging community of practice on rule of law pro bono technical assistance.


ROLE UK Programme

Kicking off the evening, Naomi Barnard, ROLE UK Programme Manager, introduced the Programme’s work and highlighted how it connects UK legal pro bono with international development. While much of the work has taken place in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda, projects have also been delivered as far as central Asia and Paraguay. Naomi emphasised that not only does the ROLE UK Programme support partnership-based technical assistance between UK experts and in-country partners, it develops and disseminates best practice on development-centric interventions.

To learn more about how ROLE UK can support new ideas and proposals, see some stories of ROLE UK’s assignments here. ROLE UK has also produced a key resource on how to improve technical assistance, available here.


HSF’s Pro Bono Initiatives

Next, Rebecca Perlman outlined HSF’s impactful initiatives, such as Fair Deal Sierra Leone, which focuses on responsible foreign investments; HSF’s secondment programme to Sierra Leone government institutions; and its online guide to investing in Sierra Leone, which was produced with Standard Chartered Bank, Prudential and the UK and Sierra Leonean Governments.

ROLE UK supported HSF to deliver the 2017 Commercial Law Summit in Freetown, as well as to design and deliver an ‘Implementation Day’ after the summit to help translate the summit’s recommendations into meaningful and co-ordinated local action.

ROLE UK also provides significant support to the UK Sierra Leone Pro Bono Network, which works with HSF, solicitors, barristers and other legal professionals to provide strategic, coordinated support in Sierra Leone. This network-style form of action can draw on the strengths and skillsets of diverse participants in the network and can provide a single point of contact for in-country stakeholders. ROLE UK is actively exploring the value of a network and encourages international pro bono experts to consider its utility in their pro bono work.


Equal Rights Trust

Jim Fitzgerald then presented the story of the Equal Rights Trust, which works to eliminate discrimination and to ensure everyone can participate in society on an equal basis. It does so through three goals: greater understanding of equality law and its centrality to rights and development; increased expertise and capacity of equality defenders; and a growing international network of equality defenders. Jim detailed the experiences of human rights defenders championing equality law, including lawyers in Serbia, Paraguay, Kyrgyzstan, and here in the UK.

ROLE UK has supported the Equal Rights Trust on a number of strategic assignments to increase the capacity of human rights defenders (HRDs) in Pakistan, particularly on equality and discrimination law. These assignments have built on three years of activity to identify and address the needs of HRDs, which through consultation identified a lack of knowledge, information and capacity to analyse Pakistani law in light of international standards and best practice on equality. The activities fit within a programme of work which aims to increase the capacity of HRDs and to enable them to better protect victims and potential victims of human rights abuses in Pakistan. To do so, there is a need to improve both substantive and technical knowledge, with a focus on equality and anti-discrimination law.  

Lawyers interested in international pro bono should consider working with specialist NGOs such as the Equal Rights Trust, to create impactful partnerships that can combine unique skills and expertise of both NGO and commercial lawyers.

Through ROLE UK’s programme team and through A4ID’s brokerage service, with its network of over 750 Development Partners, including NGOs and other civil society organisations, A4ID can facilitate relationships for both legal advice and assistance pro bono, and broader technical assistance. Please get in touch with A4ID if you’d like to explore developing these partnerships.


Bar Human Rights Committee

Kirsty Brimelow QC highlighted the BHRC’s global work to uphold international human rights law through international fact finding and trial observation; training; and international litigation. In particular, Kirsty highlighted the ROLE UK-supported work of BHRC, including trainings on internally displaced persons, and on environmental rights and alternative dispute resolution, with the Nigerian Bar Association; attendance at the Nigerian Bar Association annual conference; and training trial observers in Istanbul, Turkey.

The BHRC is a great example of how lawyer-collectives can achieve impacts much greater than the sum of their individual members. The ROLE UK-supported partnership between the BHRC and the Nigerian Bar Association, and the strategic activities the partnership is delivering, demonstrate the impact of going beyond one-off interventions. Those undertaking rule of law technical assistance should consider cementing formal partnerships with in-country stakeholders, and work towards a long-term plan of strategic activities.


Standing International Forum of Commercial Courts

Finally, Grace Karass and Bee Ezete provided a joint presentation of the work of SIFoCC, which seeks to advance development by connecting the world’s commercial courts. The team spoke about the observation programme, where judges from three countries participated in a week-long immersive programme in the English commercial court. This was followed up by attendance and presentations at the New York SIFoCC meeting. Bee and Grace also spoke of the good relationship they enjoy with ROLE UK and future plans to work together. The ROLE UK Programme has been beneficial, not just for financial support, but in providing partnership guidance on the design and delivery of the activities.

For SIFoCC, ROLE UK has not only supported UK experts going to conduct pro bono work overseas, it has also supported judges to come to the UK to learn about best practice to apply in their home jurisdiction. ROLE UK can support this and other types of unique initiatives to strengthen the rule of law internationally.

The evening saw a robust turnout, with over 50 legal professionals and development practitioners in attendance.  A lively and innovative format provided a genuine chance for international pro bono practitioners to reflect on the shared challenges they face and the opportunities that potential partnerships can create. As one attendee noted:


“The coolest thing I learnt was how much energy there is between different stakeholders for international pro bono.” - Tony Fisher, Law Society


The ROLE UK Programme is working to harness this energy, facilitate new and impactful rule of law projects, and develop the capacity for experts to deliver better interventions. If you want to get in touch about a potential project, please contact the team at

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