Public Service Voices

Public Interest Law Seminar and Roundtable in Dublin Ireland

By Michele Storms, Executive Director, Gates Public Service Law Scholarship Program


Photo of lawyers and students attending Puslic Interest Law Roundtable
Some of the US and Irish lawyers and law students in attendance at the Public Interest Law Roundtable 21 June 2008, at the Royal Dublin Society

This June 19-21, 2008 I had the great pleasure and opportunity to spend time with public interest lawyers in Ireland. The Free Legal Advice Centers in Ireland, an independent human rights organization dedicated to the realization of equal access to justice for all, campaigns through advocacy, strategic litigation and authoritative analysis for the eradication of social and economic exclusion. FLAC, along with University of Washington School of Law's own Professor Walter Walsh coordinated several events providing the opportunity for US and Irish public interest lawyers to gather together and share information.

The main events were a Public Interest Law Seminar on June 20 and a public interest law roundtable on June 21, both took place in Dublin. In addition on the 19th and the 20th, FLAC arranged for tours of a few of the public interest law offices in the area for the US attorneys, including the Immigrant Council of Ireland and the Ballymun Community Law Centre. During those visits we were able to exchange information directly with advocates in the field working to achieve justice for clients.

Brief Background
In Ireland state civil legal aid is provided through the Legal Aid Board. The Board is responsible for the provision of legal aid and advice on matters of civil law to persons unable to fund such services from their own resources. FLAC staff explained that the vast majority of the work funded by the Board is in the area of family law. This leaves many low income and disenfranchised individuals in Irish society who have problems related to housing, benefits, immigration and related issues without representation. A variety of independent law centres has emerged over many years in Ireland to address these other legal needs, FLAC is among them.

In 2005 FLAC organized solicitors, barristers and others concerned about access to justice issues to participate in a conference. After that conference FLAC issued a report entitled "Access to Justice – a Right or Privilege?"  addressing the shortcomings of the system and suggesting approaches for change. In some respects the events that took place this summer are a follow up to that effort as Ireland access to justice advocates look to the US for additional ideas and solutions. Seeds of this effort on the Ireland side also owe a great debt to the work of Irish lawyer Gerry Whyte who wrote Social Inclusion and the Legal System in 2001 (and who also participated in the events this June). This book is an important tome on the question of public interest lawyering in Ireland. Irish public interest lawyers face funding challenges, absence of broad-based support from the private solicitors and barristers organizations (as well as society in general), lack of solid infrastructure from which organizations can help to support each other and in general, the challenges of a rapidly changing society and legal system in light of Ireland’s membership in the European Union and general economic growth.

Public Interest Law Seminar, 20 June, 2008
On Friday June 20 the public interest seminar was held at the Morrison Hotel in Dublin. Presenters included Sue Donaldson of Washington Appleseed, Doug Lasdon of the Urban Justice Center, Frank Murphy, a Solicitor at the Ballymun Community Law Centre and myself (Michele Storms, Executive Director of the Gates Public Service Law Program).

At the seminar speakers and audience members shared information about the challenges of achieving access to justice for low income and politically and economically displaced individuals. The seminar opened with a welcome and remarks by both Noeline Blackwell, Director General of FLAC and UW School of Law Professor Walsh, the organizers of this event. Both spoke about the background of the public interest law movement in Ireland and gave a broad brush stroke of the current challenges facing equal justice advocates in that country. Blackwell defined public interest law as a way of working with the law for the benefit of vulnerable and disadvantaged peoples. She noted the four planks FLAC has identified as public interest law mechanisms. They include law reform, legal education, public legal education and public interest litigation. Walsh additionally spoke of the uniqueness of the legal landscape in Ireland, given their access to several sources of law, both national and European Union sources for resolution of legal problems. He spoke of his hopes for the seminar, in particular that the exchange of information between US and Irish lawyers would enhance the practice and the actual achievement of justice for people in both countries.

Photo of Noeline Blackwell and Walter Walsh
Noeline Blackwell, Director General of FLAC; Walter Walsh, UW Professor of Law

The first speaker, Sue Donaldson talked about the ways in which Washington Appleseed engages pro bono attorneys to address systemic social inequalities. Donaldson described success in working with lawyers who might not traditionally take on pro bono projects (such as transactional lawyers) to become engaged. Washington Appleseed’s work on the foreclosure crisis facing many low and moderate income Americans is an excellent example. Washington Appleseed also works at a policy level to make change in the law. Donaldson described particular efforts to reform educational policy that have helped to ensure greater equality of educational access for many low income children.

Doug Lasdon’s innovative project in New York City allows talented and creative advocates to frame their own projects based on the critical needs they see in the community. As a result the Urban Justice Center meets the needs of some of the most marginalized populations in New York City. It is one of the very few public interest law centers that addresses the legal needs of street vendors, of lesbian, gay and transgendered street youth or that takes on the specific legal problems of sex workers. Many of the projects involve Urban Justice Center advocates working directly with client communities to identify needs, frame solutions and work in tandem toward justice. Lasdon also described ways to engage community financial support by working with those in private industries such as banking. By using community education, the power of the media as well as traditional legal advocacy approaches such as litigation, the Urban Justice Center has seen great results for their client communities.

Photo of Sue Donaldson and Doug Lasdon
Sue Donaldson, Washington Appleseed; Doug Lasdon, Urban Justice Center

Frank Murphy of the Ballymun Community Law Centre eloquently presented a paper wherein he both characterized the very poor community of Ballymun in Dublin and also addressed specific problems faced by its residents – both the legal and non legal problems. To see it, the Ballymun area is highly reminiscent of the Cabrini Green projects in Chicago in the US. Not unlike that infamous area, Ballymun faces great poverty, high rates of unemployment and homelessness and large numbers of disaffected youth, many of whom do not regularly attend school. As Murphy described it, there are no lawyers or judges who hail from Ballymun; there are generally no role models for the young people. Mere miles from the courthouses where justice is supposed to be done, are large numbers of people living without hope. The Community Law Centre offers legal advice, representation, community education and mediation services. Murphy additionally spends time working with youth, hoping for a time when there will be lawyers and other professionals who can say their roots were in Ballymun. Ballymun is in a time of regeneration, many of the "flats" have been torn down and new housing is being built.

My topic was Law in the Public Interest: Challenges & Strategies. Given what I had learned before the seminar about challenges in funding and support for public interest law in Ireland I used my experience in working with the Washington State Access to Justice Board as well as experience in management in state-wide civil legal aid programs to discuss models for how to quantify legal problems/needs, root out barriers, identify allies and use coordination and collaborative strategies to develop resources and solutions. I used the Washington Civil Legal Needs Study as one example of a way to quantify legal needs and thereby grab the attention of the legislature and concerned members of the public. The formation in Washington of the Alliance for Equal Justice created an infrastructure here for a several organizations working on the legal needs of low income individuals (whether related to law reform, community legal education or litigation) to support each other and work together effectively for justice. Through the Access to Justice Board we’ve been able to plan delivery of services statewide and enter into public/private partnerships to support public interest work. I was also able to talk about the ways in which law schools can be active and even at the forefront of public interest work through clinics, student organizations and programs such as Gates PSL.

Following the presentations Professor Walsh facilitated a question and answer period. The conversation ranged from the struggles of recent law graduates to find apprenticeships enabling them to train to be public interest lawyers, to the dearth of funding and thus opportunities for public interest law activities to the question of how non law related social services and community organizations can work with public interest law organizations to achieve justice for their mutual client communities. There was even a query from one participant that we take a deeper look at who we mean when we say "disadvantaged and vulnerable" people and how do we meaningfully ensure the active participation of those communities in framing and solving their own problems.

Photo of Frank Murphy, Michele Storms and various audience members
Frank Murphy, Ballymun Community Law Center; Michele Storms, Gates Public Service Law Program; Audience engagement during question and answer segment of seminar

Public Interest Law Roundtable
On 21 June the same US lawyers along with Professor Walsh and about 30 solicitors and barristers and law professors from all over the country representing a host of independent public interest law organizations (including immigration rights organizations, human rights advocates, disability rights advocates and prisoner advocacy organizations, to name a few). Walsh conceived of this event as a "polylogue," and grouping us at three tables he facilitated the entire group in a conversation on three questions: "What does public interest law mean to you from your own perspective?", "What do you perceive as the opportunities and costs of public and private public interest law funding?" and "What do you see as the relationships between public interest law practice and theory?"

Participants in the discussion included a wide range of experience levels and backgrounds. There were law students, new practitioners as well as advocates who had been in the field for decades, some as lawyers, and some as political activists. Needless to say the three questions were merely a jumping off point for a very rich discussion that covered topics from the troubles of Northern Ireland to the civil rights movement in the US, to labor movements in both countries and on and on. Individuals spoke of specific concerns such as the new problems in the country related to immigration law. Immigration law in Ireland is relatively undeveloped at present and yet the influx of immigrants and the attendant issues related to employment, discrimination and social services are appearing faster than the system can address them.

We talked about the Irish system of legal education and how to use law schools and the apprentice system effectively to ensure talented new advocates can pursue public interest law and be prepared for the challenges of practice. We talked about ways the established bar organizations can be supporters of public interest law and I was glad I’d brought along a copy of the May 2008 Washington State Bar Association Bar News publication which highlighted collaborative relationships between private and public sector advocates in support of access to justice.

Attendees at both events included American law students in the William Sampson fellowship program and Irish law students including current and former Thomas Addis Emmet fellows (this year’s Emmet fellow Kelly Mackey will be working this summer at Washington Appleseed with Sue Donaldson).

Photo of Kyle Silk-Eglit, Sara Campbell, and Tobias Damm-Luhr and Irish law students
(l to r) William Sampson Fellows (UW law students: Kyle Silk-Eglit, Sara Campbell, and Tobias Damm-Luhr) and former Thomas Addis Emmet fellows (Irish law students)

Participation in these events was enormously personally and professional enriching for me. It was a delight to meet my colleagues and kindred spirits in Ireland who have devoted their careers to the pursuit of justice for all. In addition to the events described above and the office visits we had several meals together, a little bit of fun at the Stag’s Head Pub and plenty of opportunities to get to know one another more deeply. Everyone had the opportunity to know that we are not alone in our quests for justice and that both of our systems, while fraught with their own individual strengths and weaknesses can serve as example and inspiration to the other.


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