Celebrating Pro Bono Week: How lawyers can support charities to address statelessness

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Rebecca Carwood Barron, Christopher Beardmore (Associates at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld) and James Glaysher (Counsel at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld)
/ 7 mins read

Over the last few years, Akin Gump lawyers have been providing pro bono casework support to Asylum Aid, as well as supporting the development of a new ENS litigation database. This work not only provides opportunities for lawyers to apply their expertise to a significant human rights issue, but also directly supports stateless people.

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UK statelessness travel document
Photo: A UK statelessness travel document

This week marks the UK’s 19th Pro Bono Week, which recognises and supports the voluntary contributions made by lawyers across the UK through the provision of free legal aid. This year, the week will focus on pro bono work carried out through the pandemic and beyond and, via a variety of online events, will celebrate those providing pro bono support and recent successes, explore pro bono best practices and the different ways in which lawyers can volunteer.

Akin Gump is committed to serving clients in need irrespective of their ability to pay. Worldwide, we represent a wide range of pro bono clients, from refugees seeking asylum, to tenants fighting eviction, veterans seeking health benefits, domestic violence survivors, and non-profit organisations, among others. We counsel government officials in developing countries to assist them in regulatory, trade, tax and natural resources issues.  Our mission is to leverage the expertise, experience and passions of all members of the Akin Gump team to maximize access to justice, community development & the rule of law.

Providing pro bono support to statelessness work

Akin Gump has provided pro bono support to Asylum Aid in connection with their work on statelessness for a number of years. That work has focused on a number of initiatives, including providing assistance with individual cases. More recently, our lawyers have also started to work with the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) to support the preparation of a litigation database, the first tool to specifically focus on statelessness-related jurisprudence, to help guide future case research, legal representation and strategic litigation efforts.

In addition to this, we have organised and participated in a consortium of firms across London to work on the issue of statelessness and to provide funding to Asylum Aid to support this work. This consortium has sponsored numerous training events designed to educate lawyers at participating firms on what it means to be stateless, how statelessness can occur, the effect it can have on an individual and their family, and ways in which we can assist stateless individuals when they are appealing to the Home Office for leave to remain.

Assisting with casework

Asylum Aid’s Statelessness Pro Bono Project is a collaboration with corporate law firms in London whose lawyers assist on individual statelessness cases and research into the situations of potential statelessness clients. Individuals are referred into the project who, for a variety of reasons, think they may be stateless. The Project takes on any cases where they believe there is sufficient merit in an application for statelessness leave or assist in alternative applications or onward referral when a different application may be more appropriate. Since the Project began in 2018, four clients have been granted leave to remain (stateless leave or another form of leave), two granted British citizenship, and one successful administrative review against a refusal, in which a final decision remains pending.

Last year, Akin Gump lawyers were successful in assisting a client of Asylum Aid in his application to the Home Office to apply for leave to remain in the UK for an initial period of two and a half years. By way of background on the case, the client fled his home country of Zimbabwe in fear of his safety and arrived in the UK in 2003. He was born in Zimbabwe at a time when there was no central registry of births, and accordingly, his birth there was not documented. Following on from this, he had never been in possession of any form of ID document (e.g. passport or national identity card).

We were involved at each stage of the client’s application to the Home Office. In doing so, we conducted multiple interviews with the client, prepared his witness statement and other supporting documentation to be submitted to the Home Office, and accompanied him on visits to the relevant embassies in London for evidence gathering purposes. The team working on the case were able to build a good relationship with the client, so much so that a member of the team was invited to attend and support him at a hearing he attended relating to an accommodation eviction order he was facing.

In the end, the client was granted leave to remain in the UK primarily because he is a parent of a British citizen child (rather than on grounds that he was recognised as stateless). Nevertheless, the client was pleased with the result as for the period of time that he has been granted leave to remain in the UK, he will be permitted to work and will be able to see his family. We (and the team at Asylum Aid) will continue to assess whether the client may continue to pursue the route of a statelessness claim in the future.

Working with Asylum Aid on this project has provided an opportunity for the lawyers involved to assist a cause that is by all counts greatly under-reported and underappreciated. In addition, it provides a unique opportunity for our lawyers to learn about the laws relevant to statelessness and asylum more generally in the U.K., as well as the chance to assist an individual with a very real problem that affects every aspect of daily life. To reflect the importance of this work, the team at Akin Gump assisting with statelessness work has recently grown and a number of lawyers continue to express a keen interest to assist. 

Our latest case working with Asylum Aid concerns issues of Botswana and Zimbabwean nationality law. The client was born to a Botswana citizen father and a Zimbabwean mother and accordingly should be a Zimbabwean national by descent.  However, his parents never registered his birth in Zimbabwe. He has a Botswana passport and ID card, which are currently with the U.K. Home Office, but the Botswana government advises that these are no longer valid. The government of Botswana has also advised that because he did not actively renounce his Zimbabwean nationality prior to his 18th birthday, he has subsequently lost his Botswana nationality. He initially came to the UK on a student visa and has made at least one claim for asylum which was refused. He is now keen to try and establish whether he has lost nationality of both Botswana and Zimbabwe and how he could regain either.

Our lawyer who is leading this case shared his thoughts on what he is hoping to learn from this experience:

This is my first statelessness / asylum case, and I am hoping to learn a lot. Although I have a basic understanding of what statelessness is, I am interested to see how this impacts lives on an individual level.  I am looking forward to applying the client led and research-oriented skills that I apply in my day-to-day job to altogether different (and more human) circumstances.”

Collaboration with ENS on a new strategic litigation database

Alongside our casework support to Asylum Aid, Akin Gump has also been involved in supporting the development of a new litigation database being pioneered by the European Network on Statelessness, scheduled to be launched in 2021. This first-of-its-kind database of national, regional and international statelessness case law will provide vital assistance to legal practitioners, researchers, and policy and decision makers alike that are working to protect the rights of stateless people around the world.

Lawyers involved with the project have welcomed the possibility it provides to make a meaningful pro bono contribution to this work while also being able to fit this around other fee-earning commitments.

James Glaysher, a member of Akin Gump’s litigation group and one of the contributors to the database, noted the following: “Studying these judgments has shown me how complex the legal issues relating to statelessness can be, and the extraordinary impact statelessness can have on the life of an individual. I am pleased to be able to contribute to the development of such an important resource – I know first-hand the tremendous value of a comprehensive database of caselaw precedents when constructing and analysing legal arguments.”

Akin Gump lawyers have contributed summaries of some of the most notable recent UK judgments issued on the subject, drawing on our litigators’ experience to ensure that this content is as informative and user-friendly as possible. We know first-hand the value of a comprehensive database of caselaw precedents to the task of constructing and analysing legal arguments, so we look forward to making further contributions to the development of this important resource.

Our commitment to and first-hand experience of providing pro bono support to Asylum Aid and ENS in connection with the statelessness work that each organisation carries out, has shown our participating lawyers the value and importance that their voluntary contributions can have in protecting the rights of stateless people. Assisting with this work not only provides opportunities to our lawyers to apply their expertise to a significant human rights issue, but also provides important legal support to those affected by the issue.

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