CLA News / A report on the Commonwealth Law Conference 2021, Nassau, from the CLA President, Brian Speers


Between 5th-9th September 2021, the 21st Commonwealth Law Conference took place in The Bahamas. While varying views had been expressed about the wisdom of meeting in person and various approaches were taken to participating in an in-person conference during the pandemic, over 200 delegates travelled and attended.

Some travelled considerable distances. It was a delight to see a significant delegation from Nigeria led by the Secretary-General of the Nigerian Bar Association, Joyce Oduah. Other African nations were represented including the Pan African Lawyers’ Union, whose CEO Don Deya made a significant contribution. Also present was the President of the Rwanda Bar Association, Julien-Gustave Kavaruganda. We were delighted that the Chief Justice of Papua New Guinea, Sir Gibuma Gibbs Salika, and a delegation made it all the way from Port Moresby. Perhaps the most difficult journey was from the sole Zimbabwe delegate and a member of the CLA Young Lawyers’ Committee, Stella Wutete. She experienced 3 days of travel and nevertheless navigated both airports and immigration officials to arrive safely. In all, 24 different nations were represented.

There were of course many representatives from the Caribbean countries and the CLA Young Lawyers (YCLA) had a particularly impressive turnout which started the Conference on Sunday 5th September when the Young Lawyer’s Programme took place. This was brilliantly organised by YCLA Co-chair, Joanna Robinson who assembled in person speakers as well as recorded contributions which were amazingly put together and their impact, although different from being in the room, was striking and beneficial. It was disappointing that a keynote speaker, speaking on climate change rights, Angelique Pouponneau was unable to travel but her recorded contribution to the Young Lawyers’ Programme was definitely a Conference highlight and is well worth listening to when this recording is made available.

The preparation undertaken by the Papers’ Committee and the Organising Committee was evident by the arrival at the Conference venue of pop-up stands, paper and printed materials, t-shirts, The Commonwealth Lawyer Journal, Conference brochure and sponsor goodies for the Conference bags. A resolute team worked hard to pack the Conference bags. The reception desk was set up and delegates’ badges printed and despite a last-minute hitch over lanyards (which was brilliantly resolved by Conference Manager, Leah Almeida), the process of registration, issuing of bags and the Conference Programme all happened smoothly. The Programme of course had been the subject of significant adjustment as speakers withdrew, replacements were found and sadly some topics had to be moved out of the programme to simply deal with the changes that were taking place, really up to the last minute.

Nevertheless, the Programme comprised three full plenary sessions, and three streams of highly interesting and relevant topics. The speakers were well prepared and if at times there was a need to find at short notice, a Chair or an additional speaker, it was amazing what talent there was among the delegates who could step in at the last minute. Indeed, one particular highlight for me was asking our Ex-Co member, John McKendrick QC to become part of the panel on international money laundering to support the main speaker, Mr Benedict Daudu of Nigeria. There must have been all of 10 minutes notice provided to John, and when he was invited to share a few words about international money laundering, he spoke brilliantly without notes and in detail about the international money laundering regime and the obligations on professionals.

The Conference itself opened with an amazing outside welcome reception. The soft melody of a steel drum filled the warm night air in one of the lawns of the Grand Hyatt. The Conference wine received its first outing, and the delegates were clearly on a high as they shared tales of their journey and revelled in how splendid it was to be meeting in person. Old friends were found quickly, and catch-up conversations took place. As a consequence of a brief Council and Ex-Co meeting before the Welcome ceremony all Council members and Ex-Co members circulated and introduced delegates to each other and to themselves. The atmosphere was warm, friendly, buoyant, and exciting. However, those adjectives were nothing as compared to what brought the Welcome Reception to a close. The Junkanoo rush comprised a carnival parade of sparking, elaborate costumes, music, and dancing. The dancing, I must report, was not confined to the Junkanoo carnival troop. Thus welcomed, we were set for the opening ceremony.

It is fair to say that the best laid plans can be cast awry by a Governor-General’s Protocol Officer. Despite a minute-by-minute timeline having been produced, amended, and issued, and despite co-ordination with the Bahamas Police band, the running order and order of appearance for the platform party to arrive, was disrupted by requirement of the Protocol Officer. Despite some disruption the Platform party featuring the Commonwealth Secretary General, The Chief Justice of the Bahamas, the Attorney General of the Bahamas, the President of the Bahamas Bar Association, Vice President for the Americas our Secretary General and the Governor General of the Bahamas and me all arrived on the platform and the Opening ceremony started with Bishop Fernander offering a prayer. We were quickly underway.

Vice-President for the Americas, Peter Maynard, was the first to speak and introduced our Secretary-General, Brigid Watson. Brigid then introduced me, and I was able to co-ordinate contributions from the Governor-General, the Secretary-General, Baroness Scotland, (whose contribution throughout the Conference was immense), and the Chief Justice of the Bahamas, Sir Brian Moree, and the Attorney General. Attorney General, Carl Bethel, being a member of the Bahamas Government, generously acknowledged the Leader of the Opposition who was in the hall as a guest of the Conference – this being a Conference taking place about 10 days before a national election in the Bahamas. As a side note the Leader of the Opposition, The Most Honourable Philip Brave David, became and is now the Prime Minister of the Bahamas.

The Bahamas Police band proved to be a particular highlight to break up the various speeches. Not only were their tunes joyful and rousing, but they even matched music to movement as they swung around their tubas and trumpets and generally brought a great Bahamian warmth to our Opening Ceremony.

The Opening Ceremony having been concluded; we had a brief opportunity for television interviews from the media who had recorded some of the Opening Ceremony before we were able to start the opening plenary session on Climate Rights as Human Rights. Here we had what is typical of CLCs – an eclectic mix of legal contributions from around the Commonwealth. Baroness Scotland gave an important keynote address. This was followed by the Chief Justice of Papua New Guinea, Sir Gibuna Gibbs Salika KBE. There then followed a densely packed, but brilliantly condensed contribution from Lord Carnwath formerly of the UK Supreme Court.

After the Opening Ceremony and first Plenary session, delegates were pleased to break for coffee and then onto the sessions for the first day. By the time we reached the Conference lunch there was a buzz in the corridors, and everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time and learning along the way.

As I reflect on the work over the preceding 12+ months and the work of the Papers Committee to secure speakers, identify topics and produce descriptors of topics, I must pay tribute to the Papers Committee, especially our Chair, Mark Woods, and I thank all who assisted even though they could not attend in person.

The attendance at each of the sessions was remarkable. Choosing rooms of a proportion to accommodate perhaps 40-60 persons was excellent and it enabled both speakers and those listening to contribute in a relaxed way. Indeed, as is often the case some contributions from the floor made the greatest impact. One of the sessions on day one concerned the operation of Commercial Courts and represented one of several remarkable collaborations with sister organisations. Mr Justice Knowles of SIFOCC chaired a great session on commercial courts and His Honour Alan Large the Judge Advocate General chaired a session on Military Law (with a great recorded contribution from past President Alex Ward). Stephen Twigg of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association chaired the Plenary session on Emergency powers. These connections along with participation from the Commonwealth Secretariat and sponsorship from Lexis Nexis added to the rich variety of contribution to this CLC

The first day ended with a generous reception by the Bar of England & Wales and some (notably the Young Lawyers and the significant delegation form 3 Hare Court), found the energy to head for one of the many bars within the Grand Hyatt to bring day one to a close.

Tuesday morning opened with the Lexis Nexis breakfast. While getting delegates who had been out the night before to attend a breakfast was potentially a tall order, it was gratifying to see how many turned up. The Lexis Nexis technology worked well and their Head of the Rule of Law division, Ian McDougall spoke, as did an excellent young Bahamian lawyer, Berchel Wilson, Associate at McKinney, Bancroft and Hughes, Nassau, The Bahamas, one of the Conference sponsors.

I had the pleasure of introducing and closing this event and drawing questions and contributions from the audience. This included contributions from Baroness Scotland who, as I have said above, contributed fully throughout the Conference taking part in sessions, attending sessions, contributing from the floor, and asking questions.

The day two plenary session on Artificial Intelligence was the subject of several variations. Having enlisted Malcolm Mercer of Canada, a key thinker about the future of legal services and the use of technology, it was disappointing that Malcolm was unable to attend in person. However, with typical helpfulness, he set out his vision of the session and what he would have said and what questions he would have asked of the panel. Using those I enlisted Lord Justice Dingemans, the senior judge present from England and Wales, to chair the session. He was another whose contribution throughout the Conference was immense. Effortlessly assuming the role of Chair for the AI plenary session, Lord Justice Dingemans introduced a panel of Bar leaders. We had Bar leaders from Scotland and England & Wales, Law Society Presidents from England & Wales and Northern Ireland, and also the President of the Bahamas Bar. In addition, we had the President of the Bar of Rwanda and the Bar of The Gambia. Each Bar Leader or Law Society President made a brilliant contribution as to how AI and the use of technology was impacting their jurisdiction. Perhaps the most memorable contribution was from Julien-Gustave Kavaruganda who surprised the delegates by the extent to which Rwanda has embraced technology and seems to be far ahead of most Commonwealth jurisdictions.  As delegates said, you attend to share knowledge, and to learn from the experience of others and this plenary panel on AI certainly provided an opportunity for that.

The day unfolded with yet more brilliant sessions well attended. Delegates now fully in the Conference mode were able to mingle, chat, share lunch and coffee breaks and all went smoothly. On Tuesday evening we were entertained at a reception from long standing supporter of the CLC Charles Russell Speechley solicitors in London.

Wednesday saw a keynote session on the Use of Emergency Powers. Sir Declan Morgan, having just retired as Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland and a regular CLC attender over many years, was the keynote speaker. He brought insights and wisdom to this extremely relevant topic. His remarks were complimented by another CLC star – namely the Attorney General of Jamaica, Marlene Malahoo Forte QC. Between them, they started day three in a splendid fashion.

We were delighted that students from the University of the Bahamas Law School attended each session to make notes and prepare short summaries of what was discussed. These made their way into the Conference diary which was circulated to all delegates attending.

Wednesday night was the Gala dinner. Although it had been hoped for this to be outside, the humidity and the risk of rain interruption meant the wise decision was taken to bring this indoors. I was pleased to give an opportunity to the Senior Director of the Bahamas Tourist Ministry to bring a greeting and to express her gratitude that so many delegates had attended in person. The Tourist Ministry and the Office of the attorney General had been generous in sponsorship for the Conference.

The events of the night before may have resulted in a slightly slower start to the main opening sessions on Thursday morning. Nevertheless, three sessions took place and contributions from speakers and from the floor were all well received before the Closing Ceremony.

The platform party comprised Peter Maynard as Vice-President for the Americas, Brigid Watson our Secretary-General, Mark Stephens as the only Past President in attendance, and me. We were able to have a recorded greeting from past President Santhaan who was so disappointed that he was unable to attend in person. His greeting was heartfelt and impactful to the full plenary session delegates who were in attendance. Among contributions to the closing Ceremony was a greeting from Lord Justice Dingemans on behalf of a legal book charity asking for old law textbooks to be made available and a greeting and video from Birmingham Law Society with a view to highlighting the Conference taking place at the time of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July 2022. I was delighted to be able to make space for Stella Wutete from Zimbabwe to bring her greeting from Zimbabwe and to share the work of the Zimbabwe peacebuilding initiative for which she is the legal advisor. That initiative is chaired by Ms Sekai Holland who was a keynote speaker in Livingstone at our last CLC.

I was honoured during the Closing Ceremony to be presented with a symbolic medal of a President’s Medal presented to the CLA by the Law Society of Northern Ireland. The President’s medal should have arrived ready to be presented at the Closing Ceremony, but regrettably it did not and an alternative medal was presented in lieu to simply announce that the Law Society of Northern Ireland had commissioned a medal and the real thing will be presented soon, to be worn by every President at CLA events henceforth.

I also made space for a remarkable Conference poem written by Senator Hazel Thompson-Ayhe of Trinidad and Tobago. This mentioned all the CLC sessions and was warmly received by all delegates. I understand the poem will be available for all to enjoy on the CLA website.

The students from the University of the Bahamas Law School were brought onto the platform for their contributions to be acknowledged.

I was delighted to be able to thank the “dream team” which made all the organisation and administration run so smoothly. It was astonishing really what the small team achieved. Gemma Pearson, our PR and Communications wizard from Think Studios was simply breath-taking in her speed of production of documents, words, photographs and setting out communications, in such a professional way. Clare Roe who was responsible for all the delegate registration and the sessions administration literally ran up and down corridors throughout the Conference with a smile and unbreakable patience to provide information to delegates, reassurance to speakers and to ensure that everyone knew which session was taking place where. I was delighted to thank Francesca and Lyndsay, daughters respectively of Brigid and Conference organiser Leah, for their work front of house. No delegate could ever have been greeted more cheerily or helped more pleasantly and warmly.

There was a warm ovation for our Conference organiser Leah Almeida, who managed to make everything happen on time and adapted to changes efficiently and with equanimity. The work that Leah did in sourcing flags from each of the 54 Commonwealth countries to decorate the main plenary hall was simply one of a multitude of behind-the-scenes actions. From organising day trips and tours to organising the Police band and the Junkanoo, Leah was truly exceptional and deserves our warmest and ongoing good wishes and thanks.

It was a pleasure to express the gratitude of the delegates to Secretary-General Brigid Watson – an amazing administrator and someone who does not like to compromise on quality and professionalism. We are blessed to have such an enthusiastic Secretary-General who worked tirelessly to make the Conference happen.

Having completed the Closing Ceremony, I was humbled to be thanked in generous terms for my role by Past President Mark Stephens.

A particular highlight and purpose of the Closing Ceremony was to announce the venue for the next CLC. During his contribution, Past President Santhaan announced that it would be in Goa in southwest India. All delegates felt excited at the prospect of meeting in India, in April 2023. Judging by the success of 2021, we think people will very soon wanting to book their places.

It only remained for yes, you’ve guessed it, the Junkanoo Carnival Rush to overtake the room and play us all out in a vibrant, energetic and joyous style.

Then it was saying goodbye to some delegates who were rushing off for rest and recuperation on Bahamian islands, some to airports and some to the sun loungers for the water park. I can confirm that your President went down a terrifying vertical drop known as the Thunderball and lived to tell the tale! (It did take about 48 hours to recover my equilibrium).

I hope that this gives a flavour of CLC 2021. We were blessed with lovely weather, magnificent accommodation, generous food and beverage and superb conference sessions on a wide variety of topics. Roll on CLC 2023!