Some key insights and takeaways from our 2023 Global Forum, and ways you can stay involved.

This year, 360 members of our network joined us in Brussels October 16-18 for the annual PILnet Global Forum. As always, meeting together was a wonderful opportunity to enrich our collective knowledge, exchange best practices on how we use the law to support civil society, and pave the way for innovations and new partnerships. Over the three days of thought provoking conversations, some cross-cutting and topical themes emerged.

Crisis and Collaboration

Namely, we came to the consensus that the only way out of the former is via the latter. During a fireside chat (watch video here), guests discussed the need for streamlined legal support mechanisms to tackle the predominant crises of the day, like forced displacement, natural disasters and rule of law backsliding. In circumstances of war, instability, climate change, and other drivers of forced displacement, it is essential that NGOs and pro bono teams collaborate effectively in order to ensure justice for victims, protection for vulnerable communities, and cooperative legal mobilization to create change.

We also learned more about some interesting collaborative pro bono projects, like the Legal Helpdesk for Asylum Seekers, which is staffed by 200 volunteer lawyers and law students supporting asylum seekers in need of shelter and medical assistance in Belgium, and was awarded the 2022 PILnet Local Impact Award. Other PILnet award-winning collaborations highlighted were the Rule 39 Initiative, which has racked up more than 4,000 hours of pro bono assistance to refugees in Europe, and the Domestic Abuse Response Alliance, the largest pro bono project ever assembled in a UK jurisdiction to provide end-to-end representation for domestic abuse survivors seeking protective orders against their abusers.

New opportunities for cooperation were similarly highlighted at the Forum, like the coalition of more than 15 organizations collaborating to help jurisdictions around the world to set up a pro bono week to celebrate and promote legal pro bono. In a pitching session, the MARIO Project gave a presentation on the legal needs of 30 minority rights organizations in Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Latvia and Poland, and invited participants to join one of the 16 pro bono projects being implemented on behalf of the groups.

Participants were introduced to PILnet’s Practical Guide to Collaborative Access to Justice Pro Bono Projects, a first of its kind resource outlining the best practices in the development and management of collaborative pro bono projects to meet the legal needs of disadvantaged and marginalized individuals.

Forum guests and speakers agreed that while collaborative projects can be more complicated and require significant time investment up front, collaboration is the best way to achieve greater outcomes. As one speaker quipped “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, start collaborating.”

Refugee Rights: The intersection of forced displacement and climate change, and how to build more equitable partnerships.

Several conversations at this year’s Forum centered on the intersection of forced displacement and climate change, with climate change understood as a threat multiplier that, when combined with poverty and political instability, will push more people to flee their homes as the climate crisis worsens. Discussion emphasized that legal developments in this area are likely to evolve through practice rather than legislative innovation. More efforts are needed to compile case law, collaborate with bar associations, and sensitize judges to the applicability of international conventions in addressing this intersection.

A session on refugee rights pro bono discussed the practical steps law firms and NGOs can take to build more equitable and sustainable partnerships. A key message was that pro bono lawyers and NGOs must meaningfully consider the inclusion of those with lived experience of displacement in co-designing projects and including them at decision making and implementation levels. We also discussed the importance of conducting legal needs assessments so that assistance can be more tailored and impactful.

Participants learned about the Displaced Legal Talent Initiative, which was launched one year ago to connect displaced people in the legal sector with employers around the world. Representatives from law firms explained how everyone can benefit from hiring displaced talent. Want to stay engaged in refugee rights? We invite our network to sign on to the Global Refugee Forum Legal Community Pledge and support displaced people with a pro bono commitment.

Climate and ESG: Pitfalls and opportunities

We continued our conversation about ESG this year as well. It included discussion on how ESG interacts with pro bono law, sessions on how pro bono lawyers can work on ESG projects, for example by supporting NGOs to make better use of ESG regulations and to fit into corporate ESG agendas. One session took on the hot button topic of greenwashing in the ESG space. We heard from experts on recent regulatory changes and discussed strategies to combat this deceptive practice.

We also zoomed in on climate accountability and mechanisms to prevent, mitigate and redress environmental harm. Speakers shared ways for the legal community to advise clients on environmental and social sustainability, including by providing climate sensitive/net zero aligned advice, and why firms should discuss accountability mechanisms with their corporate clients as a way to reduce harm to communities whose lives and environments are impacted by the client’s activities. Panelists also touched upon ways lawyers can advise and support communities who are resisting environmentally harmful projects, including by using accountability mechanisms and climate advocacy strategies.

While many edifying and inspiring discussions were had on cross-cutting and global topics, Forum sessions also drilled down on country and region specific rights issues and collaborations, as well as emerging topics in the pro bono space, such as local partnerships for justice for incarcerated persons in Nigeria and Malawi, reproductive rights in Latin America, how sextortion (sexual exploitation and corruption) is affecting vulnerable groups, and the opportunities and risks posed by AI.

Watch More Forum Videos

Information about the 2024 PILnet Global Forum will be available soon. In the meantime, here’s how you can stay involved: