Law & Social Change: PILA reports on The Bar of Ireland Voluntary Assistance Scheme Conference 2022

The Bar of Ireland Voluntary Assistance Scheme Conference 2022 was held last Friday, 30th September at the Distillery Building. The theme of the conference was Law and Social Change.

Established in 2004, the Voluntary Assistance Scheme (VAS) is the formal pro-bono vehicle of The Bar of Ireland, matching the needs of NGO’s & civil society groups with the volunteering expertise at the Bar. The Bar of Ireland states that it recognises that in order for any legal system to operate at its optimum level, access must be available to all. Vulnerable sections of society often encounter difficulties in accessing the legal system. While there are state-run initiatives aimed at reducing such difficulties, these are insufficient and VAS aims to address this unmet legal need.

The conference was opened by the Hon. Mr. Justice Donal O’Donnell, Chief Justice of Ireland. Michael Lynn SC provided a presentation on Using strategic litigation as a tool for social justice. His presentation highlighted some of the key barriers to public interest litigation, most notably the issue of locus standi in Ireland and the issue of costs, as well as the issues of mootness, the settlement of individual cases and the absence of class actions in Irish law. He noted that the Irish legal system is not favourable towards public interest litigation. Mr Lynn also examined the roles played by various actors in legal advocacy including the roles played by civil society, as well as by those affected. He highlighted how shadow reports to UN monitoring bodies based on particular UN Conventions can assist with legal advocacy and highlighted the use of international human rights norms and institutions in Ireland’s reform of abortion law. He also introduced the topic of NGOs making interventions before UN Treaty bodies and suggested this could be particularly helpful in areas of law where limited jurisprudence exists.

A panel discussion was held on the topic of Litigating for social change: the experiences of litigants, civil society organisations and lawyers. Dearbhail McDonald, Author & Broadcaster was the panel moderator. The panel members included Sinéad Lucey, Managing Solicitor of the Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC), Grainne Teggart, Deputy Programme Director of Amnesty International UK and Bulelani Mfaco, PR, Advocacy & Public Policy at MASI - Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland & Northern Ireland.

Cathy Smith SC gave a presentation on Acting as a third party intervener at the European Court of Human Rights, as an amicus curiae in Irish courts, and contributing to other international forums. She outlined how these procedures work, who can use them and how they can contribute to social change.

A judges panel discussion was held on the topic of Public Interest Law Cases and the Courts. Professor Gerry Whyte of Trinity College, Dublin was the moderator. The panel included, amongst others, the Hon. Ms. Justice Iseult O’Malley, Supreme Court of Ireland and the Hon. Ms. Justice Aileen Donnelly, Court of Appeal of Ireland.

The closing address was provided by Michael Cush SC, Committee Member of The Bar of Ireland’s Voluntary Assistance Scheme (VAS).



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