CLA News / New Year’s Message from the President of the CLA, Mr Brian Speers


We might be tempted to write off 2020. So much changed during that year. However, there were some positive aspects to operating under restrictions.  The legal profession, throughout the Commonwealth, discovered new ways of working. By using video calls I was able to meet many more colleagues than before and in jurisdictions which have not previously been connected to the CLA. Not only was there the opportunity to meet colleagues but to assist them and to learn from them. There were a number of matters of common concern.

Colleagues expressed a consensus of concern about the use of emergency powers and how these should be time limited and relevant only to an emergency situation. Indeed, the CLA issued a statement to this effect.

There was also uniformity of concern about access to justice, the operation of the Courts and the need to ensure that the rights of litigants and those accused were properly protected, whatever are the circumstances.

Many countries started off poorly prepared to ensure courts and the system of justice continued to function.  However, they have caught up and colleagues throughout Commonwealth jurisdictions agreed that some of the changes for court procedures will be permanent.  Case management hearings will surely continue to be conducted online and when we have learned to file documents in Court by e-filing will we ever revert to handing in paper copies?

The CLA was active in addressing concerns about the constitutional reforms proposed in Sri Lanka, about legal profession regulatory impact in Eswatini, about freedom of expression in Zimbabwe and concerning the UK’s Internal Markets Bill which might have placed the UK government in breach of its international obligations.

The Vice Chairs organised events within the hubs and in particular it was gratifying to see the growth and development of hub activity in Africa and in Australasia. It was gratifying too to see the rapid evolution of the Commonwealth Young Lawyers Association which have organised themselves, recruited committee members and devised a programme of activity.

These are all positive developments however it is hard to ignore the impact of the pandemic on many colleagues.  Many have been unable to practice normally, or at all, through having no adequate internet connectivity.  The CLA has raised concern that IT poverty could impact on access to justice.

Many of these issues will be considered at the conference in Nassau, Bahamas from 4th – 9th September. The Executive Committee has kept this under very close scrutiny and at the time of writing it is still intended to proceed with all the preparations for an in-person conference. The Papers Committee, under the indefatigable Mark Woods ably supported by other members, but especially Kathleen Keating, has come up with a programme and descriptors of session topics and organised them into a coherent set of streams.  These all reflect the theme of the Conference “Sustainable Justice and the future role of lawyers”.

Sustainability in justice terms will require properly trained lawyers operating in an independent legal profession with access through technology to Courts which are objective and impartial and independent.

It was gratifying to note the example of judicial independence provided by the senior judiciary in Malawi which held that an election for President had been unconstitutional and ordered that the election take place again. The CLA was pleased to make a statement supporting the judiciary in Malawi and congratulating them for their upholding, in a fearless way, the Constitution and the rule of law.

Another aspect of the theme ‘sustainable justice’ is the sustainability of our environment and climate. In that connection many of the Conference topics relate to emerging rights to environment and climate, the avoidance of pollution and obligations to recycle and to corporate obligations in sourcing materials and controlling pollution.

The Conference programme has been magnificently put together by our Secretary General, Brigid Watson, who in 2020 received assistance by recruiting Clare Roe. Between them Brigid and Clare will make a great impact going into 2021.

Another pleasing aspect of 2020 was our enhanced relations with the Commonwealth Secretariat. It is hoped that those relations can develop further.  We were pleased to invite to our September Council meeting the recently appointed Senior Director of the Governance and Peace Directorate, Professor Luis Franceschi and the Head of Human Rights Unit, Dr Tawanda Hondura.

2020 also saw a renewed interest and commitment from the CLA towards promotion of the Latimer House Principles.  It is hoped that a refreshed team drawing on the considerable experience of Colin Nicholls and Peter Slinn will make 2021 a year in which the Latimer House Principles are discussed and are made known more widely in our CLA network.

I pay tribute to all members of Exco and the Council and members of the Young Lawyers Association and those working in the hubs.  We have moved, I feel, from being a collection of colleagues to a genuine Commonwealth family of lawyers. While there may occasionally be differences the goodwill and support which I have experienced from all involved in CLA activities has been sincerely appreciated and I very much hope to see as many colleagues as possible when travel is permitted during 2021.

In the meantime, we focus upon the preparations for the CLC, not forgetting that there is still the prospect of a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Rwanda in June – postponed from 2020.   The CLA hopes to have the opportunity to raise issues of access to justice in conjunction with the Law Society of Rwanda.  Our Council member Richard Mugisha will be called upon to assist in making arrangements there.

I take the opportunity of wishing all colleagues throughout the Commonwealth a healthy New Year.  I hope we will all continue to adjust our ways of working and responding to the needs of our clients.  We remember of course that there are many who have suffered bereavement, ill health and financial implications from the global health pandemic and we reflect on our fortune and look forward to making the best of the year ahead.