PILG Concept Note November 2009

Concept Note for an Annual Public Interest Legal Gathering
November 2009
Jonathan Klaaren (jonathan.klaaren@wits.ac.za)

The field of public interest law in South Africa has come a long way since that moment in the late 1970s when three now venerable public interest litigation organizations were founded. The major impulse behind the founding of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), and Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) was of course support to the struggle against apartheid. Nonetheless, that mission was one that was broadly understood and included numerous matters of social transformation. The current attention of these organizations to matters of social justice and the realization of the promises of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution is thus the direct descendant of that founding moment.
Today, those three organizations are no longer the sole occupants of this public interest law space. Instead, there are a proliferation of public interest law organizations and legal clinics. In a number of different fields, there are numerous organizations devoted to using the law as a tool for social change. To make the point, in 2009 while LHR is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a major conference on public interest law, the Women’s Legal Centre is celebrating its 10th anniversary and several proto-organisations with significant funding and expertise are in the process of birthing themselves. There is also at least one organization, probono.org, devoted to the field as a whole and to the support of other public interest organizations. Other organizations such as HIVOS and Atlantic and FHR recognize the broader organizational context of their activities and partner institutions.
While the organizational landscape for public interest lawyering has become more populated, there remain some significant gaps in the field. As noted above, many of these organizations hold occasional conferences. And funding is often given to advance knowledge in a particular area or to deepen expertise through a workshop. However, what the field does not have is extensive collaboration between public interest law groups nor does it have an event that serves as a focal point for professionals in the field to share and develop knowledge. The second of these features was for instance explicitly recognized and served as the motivation for the commissioning of the Marcus and Budlender report on strategic public interest litigation by the Atlantic Philanthropies.
We believe that the time is ripe to establish a major innovation within the field of public interest law. We propose the holding of a first annual (or perhaps biannual) public interest legal gathering. By a legal gathering, in addition to not meaning an illegal gathering, we mean an inclusive conference for legal professionals (from paralegals to legal academics and others) interested in public interest law in South Africa. Such an event might stretch over one or two days and feature a limited number (such as three or four) of structured sessions with either a high-profile speaker or set of panelists, but would primarily consist of a number of parallel sessions where participants presented papers on and discussed topics of public interest law. The norm would be for papers or presentations to have been prepared and made available before the event. Such a relatively loose yet semi-academic structure would lend itself to a diverse set of sessions on the full range of topics relevant to public interest law.
Three institutional models serve as rough examples of what we envision. Two of these are the annual Competition Law conference held for three years now by the Competition Authorities together with the Mandela Institute of the Wits Law School and the Labour Law conference , an event begun on a noncommercial basis and currently organized by Juta’s. Both events attract a diverse audience and are focused on a particular field of law. A third is the recent LHR 30-year birthday party, held 19-20 November 2009 at the Sunnyside.
Producers. The producers of the content would include legal academics, public interest law practitioners, human rights workers, law clinic faculty, other researchers and legal practitioners, and non-law academics as well as students and foreign participants including those in sociolegal conferences abroad.
Content. The content presented at the event would primarily consist of 10 to 20 page papers on public interest law. Such papers would respond to a general call for papers and would need to be prepared and available in advance, as is done at the Competition Law conference. The topics covered would include women’s rights, children’s rights, refugee rights, socio-economic rights, environmental law, the transformation of the legal system, the differential participation of race and gender among structures of the legal profession, the politics of judicial selection, and other topics. Potential structured sessions for the first PILG might include a discussion of the previous year’s public interest law cases in the Constitutional Court and a panel discussion on the Marcus and Budlender report.
Reception. The audience for the event would primarily consist of persons professionally interested in public interest law. This would include legal professionals such as paralegals, attorneys, advocates, legal academics, law students (both foreign and domestic), and government attorneys as well as other professionals such as non-law academics interested in the field. The likely audience would be at least one hundred persons in the JHB area (including those at Wits) as well as another one hundred from outside of JHB.
Implementation. We propose two basic thrusts to put this concept into practice – first, the establishment of a small two or three person organizing core working with a broader steering committee and second, the identification of a critical mass of financial sponsors and participants.
For the first thrust of organisation, the steering committee would consist of representatives of the three 1970s organizations as well as three or four other organizations such as a public interest department of a major law firm, another public interest law group, a law clinic, and a group of advocates. In addition, the organizing chairs would form part of the steering committee. The actual administration of the event would be outsourced, ideally to a small team of conference organizers with whom the organizing chairs have worked previously. The steering committee would be made up of organizations based in Gauteng. We foresee the venue of the legal gathering to be Wits West Campus, using the Chalsty Centre and the recently restored FNB building.
For the second thrust of financial and participation sponsors, a number of large organizations including law firms, advocates’ groups, litigation organizations, funders, embassies, and other organizations directly interested in supporting the rule of law and public interest litigation in South Africa would be approached to sponsor not the costs of the conference but the costs of attendance of a number of participants. In this way, the costs of a critical mass of persons from outside of Johannesburg to attend the event would be secured. These bursaries would be administered and made available by the gathering organizers rather than the organizations donating the funds. Further, attendance at the PILG would be open to all but would be on the basis of registration and payment of a conference fee.
In terms of publications, we would institute the conference proceedings model of publication to webpublish, after some peer review, all worthwhile papers. This would serve as an archive of public interest law for future events and for research. We will then consider taking a selection of papers for publication in the SAJHR, which would entail more rigourous peer review. Depending on interest and funding, we might publish a selection of the proceedings in a hardcopy edited publication. Public Interest Legal Gathering Project[2]

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