FROM DIVERSITY IN LAW: AN INDEPENDENT EDUCATIONAL PUBLISHING MAGAZINE

Legal volunteers leave a lasting impression

Lawyers are using their professional skills to improve the life of people on the other side of the world, says Kaylie Allen

Challenges Worldwide (CWW) is an international development charity that has been active in international legal work since 2000, when it began a programme of legal reform in Belize. CWW has since started legal reform work in other areas, particularly in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India.

CWW's first project was working with a quango called the National Committee for Families and Children (NCFC). The task was to audit the entire Belize legal system, including the Families and Children Act, and make recommendations that would bring Belize in line with the basic requirements of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Over the course of three years, CWW placed five lawyers as volunteers into the NCFC, each working with them to review a different area of law. At the end of the three years, NCFC travelled to Geneva to have the proposed amendments - developed by the volunteers - approved by the UN. Approval was granted and the amendments are now law.

CWW has since continued working with the NCFC, recruiting legal volunteers to train social workers to represent children in court, addressing the shortage of qualified legal professionals available to represent the children. Together, in just five years and with just five legal volunteers, they have brought about change that will positively impact the lives of abused children in Belize forever.

The lawyers involved in this work were just normal people from the UK who embraced the challenge to go and do something exciting and different that would make a lasting impact in a place where legal skills are in short supply.

The process of taking up a volunteer challenge with CWW is similar to applying for a paid job. Candidates submit their CV and supporting documents and have interviews. If a candidate is accepted, CWW staff match volunteers to specific pieces of work with their overseas partners that require their blend of training, skills and experience.

People love working on these assignments, where they are making long-term differences to people's lives by applying their professional ability directly to problems around the world.

Eoghan Mackie, CWW's chief executive, himself once a solicitor with Arthur Andersen, says: "I left my firm in the UK to pursue more diverse opportunities overseas. The partners CWW works with in developing countries are incredible and are making real progress to remove the root causes of problems for people around the world. By finding skilled volunteers we are able to help them make changes to address those problems.

"At CWW I know that everyday I go to work, whether in the UK, India, or Bangladesh, I am doing something which will make someone's life better. Everyday I learn so much about so many things, from different cultures and languages to new approaches to problems we have in the UK."

Take the example of Lucy Chisholm who graduated with a law degree from Oxford in 2003. She then went on to complete her LPC which she finished in 2005. Chisholm had experience giving free legal advice to tenants through her university and she also volunteered at a homeless shelter. She wanted to gain more practical experience and use her skills and legal knowledge to help in a development context.

Chisholm worked in Bangalore, India. The organisations she worked with defend the labour rights of workers, especially those in unregulated sectors. They lobby for better trade and labour policies, intervening in specific human rights cases and running programmes for women workers in Bangalore's sweatshops.

Her legal background was particularly valuable in the work they undertake to research compliance with labour laws in factories and the legal counselling they offer women workers. Her other transferable skills were put to excellent use, networking between NGOs, consumer organisations and trade unions in the industry.

Chisholm's key objective was to produce a piece of research that would help the organisation develop their legal policy and enable them to make legal interventions more effective for the garment workers.

During her three-month project, Chisholm produced two reports. The first focused on the execution and handling of past labour cases by the NGO and the second on domestic legal cases. These reports offered an honest appraisal of their handing of these cases and will act as a learning tool for other organisations engaging in this field, and the NGO itself.

She also created a legal database of past cases that enabled the organisation to keep comprehensive records of their previous workload and track current cases. This will help them further streamline their operations and increase efficiency.

After returning to the UK, Chisholm is now working with the Department for Communities and Local Government and is due to qualify as a solicitor in 2008.

CWW work with 10 or more lawyers a year and hope to expand to 50 each year. The charity has identified an opportunity for volunteers to help develop human rights and legal reform around the world, particularly in countries that inherited a legal system from the UK, where legal professionals find fewer differences in the fundamental frameworks underpinning the systems.

Law is such a useful qualification to have, and as a profession it lies at the heart of the civilized world, yet so often we think it is just about the narrow work done by solicitors in law firms. We shouldn't forget that there are people around the world changing lives with their professional skills and that many of those people are lawyers!

Kaylie Allen is the business development manager at Challenges Worldwide ( www.challengesworldwide.com)

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