The conference was held against the backdrop of pressing issues in Hungary concerning defence of the public interest and respect for the rule of law.
Following the passing of a law by Hungary earlier this year that placed a range of restrictions on foreign universities, Michael Ignatieff, President and Rector of the Central European University, said in the opening plenary that pejorative populism is being substituted for law. ‘Rule by law’ rather than ‘rule of law’ is becoming the common paradigm, and the world is being pitched into the politics of enemies rather than adversaries, limiting the space for open argument and thereby eroding the rule of law.
He pointed to five pillars of public interest law which, he said, unfortunately can no longer can be taken for granted in many countries:
- Freedom of association/freedom to represent your client
- Independence of the courts and access to judicial review
- Governments and corporations that will obey the judgments of courts
- A free media, and access to it to inform others
- Free universities to teach practical legal skills
During the course of the conference, many delegates echoed concerns about one of more of these pillars being under threat in their country.
To hear from public interest lawyers working in challenging circumstances in India, Pakistan, the Middle East (including Syria) and Africa was inspiring and a stark reminder of the vital importance of a working rule of law in order for there to be any prospect of justice.
The large law firm sessions at the conference had speakers from firm, client and clearing house perspectives dealing with contemporary issues such as evaluating pro bono, multi-jurisdictional models and global partnerships, making your pro bono needs-driven, together with sessions that focused on illustrating projects and models working to address specific legal need such as that of the victims of trafficking and refugees. Pro bono coordinators from the US, UK, and many European and Asian countries were in attendance and the level of discussion reflected an advanced understanding of the business of making pro bono work.
The forum was truly global with a strong contingent of Asian region attendees including a good-sized delegation from mainland China as well as from Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, India, Indonesia and Taiwan.