Lawyers Responsibility to Respect

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Ruby Sandhu is a partner with law firm, The Brooke Consultancy LLP. She was invited to speak at the Law Society International human rights conference, Wednesday 10th December 2014, to address the “Lawyers Responsibility to Respect.”

The foundations for the discussion of business and human rights had already been discussed earlier in the day from various stakeholders, including law firms, businesses, think tanks, activists, regulatory organisations and NGOs.

The premise for my talk and introduction as a panelist was the work of the Law Society’s Business and Human Rights Advisory Group of which I had been a member. The mandate for the Advisory Group was on how best to advise the legal profession on Business and Human Rights.

I made reference to the Advisory Group’s work and ensuing Recommendations released in March 2014. That the first Recommendation referred specifically to:

Law Firm members have a responsibility to respect human rights.

That the Recommendations were aligned with the UNGPs principles; this required awareness by law firms and members of their responsibility to:

avoid infringing human rights, (i) through their own business operations as a law firm; and (ii) through their business relationships, that is the advice provided to clients.

I made reference to the fact that twenty years ago, I had returned from Bulgaria as part of my work with an NGO (The George Soros Foundation – Civic Education project), supporting the country’s transition from post socialist state to democracy. The mission included outreach to civil society actors as well teaching courses on International Human Rights (to postgraduate students) and EU law to undergraduate students at Sofia University and a private university respectively. That on my return, my human rights expertise found no place in my corporate commercial private practice. That what I was now aware of and as evidenced in a paradigm shift over recent years was that with globalization and a complex world, human rights issues had become fundamental to the call for responsible business conduct. That the lines as between distinct silos of expertise was thinning and a holistic approach by lawyers as part of their due diligence was required.

Further reference was made to the evolution of human rights in codes of corporate conduct, voluntary principles, standards, company laws and Directives and that there had been an evolution of business and human rights, which impacted every facet of corporate life. These included the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises, the Equator Principles and the IFC. That the development of business and human rights was premised on a need to provide remedy to victims whose human rights had been violated or negatively impacted by Businesses. That victims were now more aware of their rights to remedy and along with innovative lawyering, and the growing awareness of courts and tribunals to place recognition on such claims. That businesses were becoming acutely aware of the risk of their business operations and were asking lawyers to provide an analysis, reassurance of such potential risk. Lawyers were therefore required to understand the UNGPs and be in a position to alert clients of such potential human rights risks.

Stress was also put on the fact that our education was so debilitating in that preliminary research conducted of postgraduate law schools in London, revealed that very few institutions had appetite for human rights. Reasons included lack of funding or desire. The latter dictated by the needs of the law firms.

Ultimately the case was put forward that law firms are indeed businesses, however we are ultimately a profession. A profession premised on ethics and that as trusted advisors we would be required to ensure that we take up our responsibility to respect human rights, which was an active duty and permeated all areas of practice of the law.

Please contact Ruby Sandhu to discuss Corporate Responsibility and Business and Human Rights.