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Column Anybody – not just the elites – can use law to change society

Even a state with limited resources can prioritise human rights. We’re determined to ignite a passion for using the law to help disenfranchised communities, writes Mairead Healy.

THIS MORNING Albie Sachs, former South African Constitutional Court judge and colleague and friend of Nelson Mandela, will deliver the keynote address at a conference on Using the Law to Challenge Injustice organised by PILA, the Public Interest Law Alliance.

Justice Sachs is one of the most inspirational civil rights activists of our time, and a pioneer in the constitutional recognition of rights. He was a civil rights lawyer forced into exile from his homeland during the apartheid era – and targeted by South African secret police in a car bomb attack that left him permanently disabled – who was then appointed as a judge by Nelson Mandela in 1994. He has strong links to Ireland too – it was at a Dublin kitchen table in the late 1980s that he wrote the first draft of the ANC Bill of Rights, which formed the basis for the new South African Constitution.

As a Constitutional Court judge, he was involved in several judgments that were ground-breaking for common law jurisdictions like Ireland’s, including S v Makwanyane (1995) which abolished capital punishment, the Grootboom case (2000) which found the state had a duty to provide adequate housing, and Minister of Home Affairs v Fourie (2005) which found it unconstitutional to prevent same-sex couples marrying. He also presided over the Treatment Action Campaign case (2006), where the South African government was forced to provide access to HIV drugs for pregnant women based on that country’s constitutional guarantee of the right to healthcare.

Using the law to help disenfranchised communities

PILA invited Albie Sachs to speak at our conference because we wanted to inspire attendees; to tell them that anybody – not just the elites – can use law to change society, and ignite a passion for using the law to help disenfranchised communities. Justice Sachs and the other international and Irish speakers will speak with first-hand experience about how a state with limited resources can still prioritise human rights.

PILA was launched in 2009 by FLAC. It helps social justice and human rights-focused community organisations get legal expertise for free (pro bono) from a selection of hundreds of top quality barristers, solicitors and law firms. In the same way, we help lawyers to find a way to give back to their communities without having to change jobs. PILA also provides free information services about public interest law issues. Our project’s ultimate goal is to develop the use of the law in a way that protects human rights and helps Ireland’s most marginalised and disadvantaged people. We do this by recruiting volunteer lawyers to engage in litigation, law reform and legal education for our partner community organisations.

To date, PILA has facilitated more than 200 advice and litigation referrals, over 40 legal education sessions and 30 law reform working groups. Since 2009, PILA has helped over 80 community organisations access hundreds of thousands of euro worth of legal services for free – directly increasing the impact of their work and improving their service to the public.

The spectrum of law and social activism

An example of this scheme in action is a recent project involving FLAC, TENI (Transgender Equality Network Ireland) and Senator Katherine Zappone. PILA organised volunteer lawyers to help draft a Bill (later introduced to the Seanad) providing for the legal recognition of transgender people. This collaboration was shortlisted for a European pro bono award. Another recent referral involved voting rights of intellectual disabled people for Inclusion Ireland.

PILA’s conference is being attended by an eclectic mix of more than 300 activists, lawyers, public servants, academics and leaders across different fields. It is providing a space to discuss how individuals and organisations can be empowered to work towards advancing change. It was thrilling to get speakers of the calibre of Justice Sachs but also from across the spectrum of law and social activism to talk about the role of law in our society, about how an understanding of law can make it easier for everyone to take their place in a socially inclusive society and therefore that law is a matter of public interest.

Whilst PILA’s everyday work shows how charities and organisations can be eased into using the law effectively, in a structured way, it is important to remember that we as citizens all have a personal part to play in campaigning for policy reform. Each of us has a voice, and if we stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable and demand that everyone in society is entitled to live in dignity with their rights respected, then we can collectively effect change. As Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it is done”.

Mairead Healy is Project Officer at the Public Interest Law Alliance (PILA), a project of legal rights group FLAC.

Column: There’s a viral spread of increasingly restrictive laws curtailing human rights

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