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17 Sep 2015

Jonathan Smithers, President, Law Society of England and Wales

As businesses, law firms need to implement processes and practices to ensure respect for human rights

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The promotion of business and respect for human rights are mutually beneficial.  The announcement from FIFA earlier this summer, that future World Cup bids will have to meet the provisions of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, is ground-breaking.  In particular, the new FIFA requirement that all contractual partners and those within the supply chains will have to comply with the provisions has wide ranging implications for businesses large and small across the world as well as for the legal counsel that represent them.  The significance of an international “brand” such as FIFA incorporating these international human rights standards into its operations cannot be underestimated.  While understanding and awareness of business and human rights is quickly increasing, seeing the changing business landscape in practical terms is of vital importance to encourage all businesses, including law firms, to recognise the need for new processes and practices to ensure respect for human rights and to take steps to put these in place.

Our ambition is to extend the knowledge, and practice, of the legal profession in this vital area.  As the guardians of the rule of law, the international legal profession has an obligation to encourage its members to not only respect human rights through the law and their work with clients, but to ensure that law firms as businesses themselves operate under the highest of standards.

The FIFA announcement highlights the centrality of business and human rights provisions for all organisations whether large or small and in every geography of the globe.  Certainly, this announcement has direct implications for every business involved in a FIFA bid, from the large contracts, all the way along the supply chain and the individuals involved, which will also have a mirror impact on the legal profession.  However, it also signals that there is momentum and appetite for ensuring that high-profile events and business activities respect human rights in all corners of the globe.

Our engagement with members has shown that awareness of the principles, and measures already in place regarding business and human rights is very high.  In fact, 86% of respondents are aware of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and 62% are aware of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. 48% of respondents' firms have considered making a human rights related policy commitment.

Awareness is high, and so is demand; 50% of respondents have had clients, or their own firms, seek advice or representation on how to devise a human rights policy for the company, or on what to include in a contract to ensure that a business partner respects workers' rights, health and safety good practices or good environmental stewardship.  44% of respondents have had experience of a claim in a UK court for personal injuries caused by a company outside the UK.

Interestingly, when identifying what they consider to be human rights issues, among the answers with the most consensus were those relating to law firms themselves. 72% of respondents identified how a law firm hires or treats its employees as a business and human rights issue. 77% said that “as business enterprises, law firms have a responsibility to respect human rights and should have a policy commitment to human rights and human rights due diligence processes in place.”

Participants also responded positively to our suggestions for ways that we can support our members in their business and human rights work and in their own organisations.  A strong interest was shown in the possibility of training and information sessions to lawyers on a series of business and human rights issues; in the development guidance tools and good practice resources; in model policy commitments for law firms; and for member firms to share knowledge, experiences and insights in the area of business and human rights.

The announcement by FIFA and the growing appetite among members for support on business and human rights issues are very positive developments that bode well for increasing member interest beyond those firms that have practice areas directly related to human rights law.  Our goal is to ensure that solicitors in England and Wales understand the practical implications of what it means to respect human rights in their practice and that they take active steps to implement these.  

The Law Society is currently inviting members to respond to a survey so they can best identify how to support law firms.