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IBA funding programme supports lawyers on the frontline

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistThursday 22 April 2021

As the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic continues, a new £180,000 funding programme offers a much-needed financial lifeline to frontline legal aid providers worldwide.

The burden of Covid-19 has weighed heavy on legal systems already grappling with decades of spending cuts and the demise of legal aid. Like other essential workers – from medics to drivers, cleaners and teachers that have all emerged as frontline heroes – legal practitioners have played a vital role in ensuring those most in need continue to have access to justice.

When the pandemic hit, those working in the non-profit sector were caught in ‘the perfect storm’, remarks Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the International Bar Association (IBA). ‘The reality was that the number of people that would need this type of assistance would increase dramatically’, says Ellis. ‘These frontline providers who are dealing with individuals walking into the office desperate for help also found themselves in a situation where they simply were not going to secure financial support from the private or public sector because of the economic downturn.’

The Frontline Legal Aid Fund is a great support in providing comfort that there is universal solidarity in combatting COVID-19

David Woodroffe
Principal Legal Officer, North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency

The financial fallout from Covid-19 drove home the urgency to set up a global fund to improve access to justice, says IBA President Sternford Moyo. ‘The IBA – one of whose objectives is to work with specially selected national and international juridical organisations to ensure observance of the rule of law, human rights and an effective administration of justice – found this to be an auspicious time to launch a fund dedicated to access to justice’, he says.

Thirteen charities have already successfully completed the programme’s due diligence process. In the United States, the Center for Court Innovation (CCI); El Pueblo; Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center; the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; the Mississippi Center for Justice; Public Counsel and the Texas Civil Rights Project will each receive $10,000.

The programme is being launched at an ‘absolutely critical’ time in the US, says Katie Marquart, Partner and Pro Bono Chair at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, which nominated Public Counsel and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center to receive the funding. Hansel Pham, President of the IBA Foundation, agrees: ‘As with almost all charitable organisations, the needs of these legal services and those of the people they serve, are greater than ever. They’ve had to do more with less. It is our hope that this frontline initiative will alleviate some of that stress.’

The CCI will use the funds to continue to ‘respond to community needs, invest in innovative restorative justice approaches, and increase access to justice in neighbourhoods across New York City’, says Peter Napoli, CCI’s Director of Funds Management. Jennifer Cowan, Pro Bono Counsel and Litigation Counsel at Debevoise & Plimpton, which nominated the charity, agrees the donation will be vital to addressing ‘inequities in the criminal justice system, re-centre community voices, and reduce unnecessary incarceration.’

The donation couldn’t come at a better time for the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ), a non-profit focused on civil rights advocacy and litigation. ‘It is no secret that Mississippi is rife with examples of racial and economic injustice, and that COVID-19 has highlighted inequities that have lain below the surface for many years’, says MCJ President and Chief Executive Officer, Vangela Wade. ‘Having support from the IBA allows us to address immediate issues that African American and Immigrant families are facing due to the pandemic.’

North America is just the starting point. Elsewhere, the Comisión de Trabajo Pro Bono e Interés Público in Argentina; European Lawyers in Lesvos (ELIL) in Greece; Kituo cha Sheria in Kenya; the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), Foro Penal in Venezuela and the Fundación Pro Bono Chile will each receive £10,000. A further five charities will be announced once the due diligence process is complete.

Kituo Cha Sheria has been working to address the ever-widening gap in access to justice that has emerged in Kenya throughout the pandemic. Dr Annette Mbogoh, the Centre’s Executive Director, says the funds will enable the charity to establish a much-needed E-resource and ICT Justice Centre to help ‘mitigate the challenges affecting indigent and marginalised communities in accessing justice through technology.’

Philip Worthington, ELIL Managing Director, says the grant will allow his team to continue its work supporting asylum seekers in Lesvos and Samos and establish a new programme in Athens. ‘In this way, the funding will help us carry on our work to defend human rights, uphold the rule of law and provide meaningful access to legal assistance for asylum seekers in Greece’, says Worthington.

In Australia, the NAAJA has been supporting 36 remote Aboriginal communities throughout the Covid-19 crisis. ‘We are building capacity in the justice system for Indigenous people to be the first line of justice in the event of further lockdowns and travel restrictions’, says Principal Legal Officer, David Woodroffe. ‘The Frontline Legal Aid Fund is a great support in providing comfort that there is universal solidarity in combatting COVID-19 and the recognition of the value of legal aid bodies such as NAAJA.’

The Frontline Legal Aid Fund is being coordinated by the IBA in collaboration with its US-based charitable arm, the IBA Foundation (IBAF), which supports the IBA’s major rule of law projects. The IBA engaged with its Group Member Firms and used their collective knowledge to identify 40 charities providing legal assistance to victims of domestic violence, child abuse, civil rights violations and employment and housing discrimination. This was whittled down to 18 finalists following a competitive selection process conducted by members of the IBA Executive team, IBAF Board Members, and senior officers of the IBA’s Legal Practice Division and the Section on Public and Professional Interest.

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