Commonwealth Lawyers Association

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The Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA) is an independent professional membership association for lawyers practising within the Commonwealth.

Its purpose is to provide its members with information, education and assistance to ensure the rule of law is upheld throughout the Commonwealth. It aims to unite its members by improving legal education and standards, as well as informing and advising the community and the broader Commonwealth about areas of concern or abuse of the rights of Commonwealth citizens. Its work includes trial observation, projects for the further development of the Latimer House Principles and a programme of events, including the biennial Commonwealth Law Conference.

Its members include lawyers, judiciary and government officers, academics and legal professionals, from the Commonwealth and around the globe. It also has many institutional and corporate members in its network.

CLA has existed in its present form since the 1980s, but has a much longer history that dates back as far as 1955 when the first Commonwealth and Empire Conference (the modern day Commonwealth Law Conference) was held. CLA has a president, who holds office for two years, a ruling Council of 25 members and an Executive Committee of 15 members who are working lawyers in member states of the Commonwealth. The current president of CLA is Mark Stephens CBE.

Today the CLA’s work encompasses individual and joint projects with other Commonwealth legal groups, contributes to legal forums and working groups, monitors areas of concern across the Commonwealth and ensures, through its website and social media channels, that the wider community is in touch with the latest developments in the law within the various member states. CLA recently worked with the Bertha Foundation and the Socio Economic Rights Institute of South Africa as being trial observer at the Beatrice Mtetwa trial in Zimbabwe. CLA’s premier event, the Commonwealth Law Conference (CLC), is held every two years in a member state and regularly attracts more than 1,000 delegates and speakers. The next CLC will be held in the city of Glasgow from 12-16 April 2015.


Joint project on blasphemy legislation in the Commonwealth

In 2011 the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) and CLA recruited a group of volunteer researchers to work on a project intended to provide a survey of the operation of blasphemy legislation across the Commonwealth.

The initiative aims to assess whether existing blasphemy laws meet international human rights standards in Commonwealth countries and, in particular, whether they are consistent with the rights to freedom of expression and religion, and the right to a fair trial. The end result of the initial survey was to provide an overview of the issues involved across the 53 Commonwealth countries and a basis for further research in countries where current blasphemy legislation causes concern in respect of compliance with international human rights obligations. On the basis of this overview, focus countries from all regions of the Commonwealth, reflecting the breadth and diversity of approaches to blasphemy legislation, were identified for further in-depth analysis. The focus countries that were selected were Australia, Botswana, Canada, Guyana, Jamaica, Malawi, Malaysia, Malta, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Uganda.

During 2012 and 2013 a group of volunteer lawyers with expertise in international human rights law conducted research on the theory and practice of blasphemy legislation in some of these countries. Due to a lack of resources to fund translations and conduct in-country research, it was not possible to research all of the focus countries and the research conducted was necessarily limited to English-language legal documents, NGO reports and media articles. Following consultation with practitioners and academics it was decided that, given the sensitivity of the issues involved, it was not helpful to publish research that was reliant upon incomplete and potentially inaccurate third-party sources.

The project is currently on hold due to an inability to obtain accurate translations of the relevant legislation and court rulings. CLA and the BHRC will be applying for funding in 2014 based upon the research that has been conducted on Pakistan and the UK, as these countries had the largest amount of English language research materials available.

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