Pro bono and community investment work accounted for more than 132 hours of A&O lawyers’ time each and every day of 2019. The results have not gone unnoticed, as these highlights of the year show.
The lawyers and teams undertaking A&O’s pro bono and community investment work have had another busy and productive year in 2019.
For the fifth year running, our work in this important area was commended in the Financial Times Innovative Lawyers Awards.
In Europe, we were recognised for successfully defending Romanian anti-corruption judge Dr Camelia Bogdan, and in Asia, we were commended for preparing guides on stop-and-seize powers that impact freedom of movement for journalists, activists and NGO workers in Hong Kong.
A&O’s size and global reach are factors in making two of the projects highlighted here records of their kind. This past year we completed one of the largest pro bono projects A&O has ever worked on, as well as the largest-ever pro bono project led by the Hong Kong office.
Celebrating ten standout years of Smart Start
This year marked the tenth anniversary of Smart Start, A&O’s award-winning work experience programme.
Smart Start was launched in 2009 to broaden access to the world of law and business for disadvantaged young people. “Back then, work experience was often handed out through personal networks,” says Sue Wisbey, A&O’s Community Investment Manager. “So our aim was to target students from low-income households who had ambition and drive, but whose backgrounds made it harder to access career opportunities – students who weren’t necessarily getting top grades but who had real potential.”
Since then, Smart Start has driven up standards of work experience in the legal sector, supporting 1,450 young people in the UK and expanding to Hong Kong, India and South Africa.
During Smart Start week, students progress through workshops on presentation skills, interviews, personal brand and CVs, as well as focusing on creative thinking, problem solving and resilience.
Each year around 150 volunteers – 40% of whom are clients – hold speed networking lunches, and help students prepare the defence in a mock murder trial and negotiate the sale of a football club. A key aim is to show all the career options a large law firm can offer – both legal and non-legal.
Smart Start has grown every year and now offers mentoring, bursaries, university summer school placements and work experience with clients.
The online mentoring programme, Smarter Futures, provides ongoing support at a time when young people are making big decisions (500 students have already benefitted from it). Bursaries of GBP10,500 are also awarded to two standout students every year to help fund their higher education.
Smart Start remains the only scheme across the legal sector to be formally accredited for its quality. It has expanded each year, receiving numerous accolades along the way – from the Financial Times and the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise, among others – and was used as a best practice case study by the UK Government.
Students now come to A&O from across the UK. For many, it’s the first time they have left home. “When they walk into A&O, most have never experienced anything like this,” says Sue. “I see kids – who at the start of the week were so nervous they could barely speak – become confident and enthusiastic about their future.
“Coming from a disadvantaged background still creates many barriers, but we know these young people can achieve so much. That’s what motivates us to do more every year – otherwise they might not get this chance.”
Highlighting the preferential treatment of heterosexual married couples in Hong Kong
In the largest-ever pro bono project led by the Hong Kong office, A&O published a report in July showing how people in heterosexual marriages receive preferential treatment under Hong Kong law, compared with how those in alternative relationships such as civil partnerships, cohabitation and same-sex marriages are treated.
Partner Matt Bower led the team in Hong Kong, with international support from members of A&O’s LGBT+ network, A&Out, plus Peerpoint consultants, volunteers from local Hong Kong firms and a major client.
The research, commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) and conducted over 12 months, analysed Hong Kong legislation and government policies that discriminate against couples not recognised as ‘married’ – marriage between opposite-sex couples being the only voluntary relationship recognised under Hong Kong law.
“We found evidence of differential treatment in each of the 21 areas of law we examined, from the moment a relationship is formed to the end of a person’s life,” Matt says.
For example, heterosexual married couples are entitled to benefits, such as preferential tax treatment, access to public housing and the ability to use reproductive technologies, which individuals in other relationships are not. The failure to recognise alternative relationships also impairs the way certain laws can operate as intended, and makes it more difficult for authorities to enforce some criminal laws too.
A&O’s report has generated significant interest among clients, local experts and industry associations, with the Equal Opportunities Commission in Hong Kong describing it as “excellently informative”.
A subsequent panel discussion, hosted by A&O and prominent spokespeople on diversity and equality, looked further at the prospects for reform and how businesses can support LGBT+ employees.
“Our hope now,” says Matt, “is that this positive response from so many organisations and individuals will prompt further discussion on whether and how reform can be pursued.”
Ending the use of ‘torture-tainted’ evidence
A report by the human rights organisations Fair Trials International (FTI) and REDRESS, published to mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has drawn on research by A&O to show that, contrary to international law, state authorities in many countries still routinely rely on evidence obtained through torture.
The report compared the law and practices in 17 countries across Europe, Asia Pacific, Africa and the Americas to highlight how torture is frequently used by authorities as a short cut to gather ‘intelligence’, obtain confessions and exert control over detainees.
A&O’s global reach and experience was crucial in providing FTI and REDRESS with the high quality cross-border assistance needed to produce the report. Partner Joanna Page led an international team of more than 70 lawyers and support professionals to conduct research in 12 jurisdictions, making this one of the largest pro bono projects A&O has ever worked on.
A key finding was that torture evidence continues to be used largely because domestic legislation fails explicitly to prohibit it, or because judges fail to declare it inadmissible. In some countries, confessions are the main evidence on which convictions are founded, thereby increasing the risk of coercion and torture.
The report has called for a number of actions, including stronger safeguards to prevent torture evidence being used in court; ensuring domestic legal regimes comply with international standards; firmer rules to prevent authorities relying on evidence derived from torture; reducing reliance on confessions in criminal prosecutions; and better protection of defendants’ procedural rights and access to lawyers.
FTI and REDRESS have presented the findings to major international bodies, including the UN, and are calling for engagement with states to clarify international standards and implement stronger safeguards. The report has laid the foundations for collaboration with other NGOs internationally and for closer examination by international bodies in relation to the use of torture evidence.
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