Some of the country’s biggest law firms are moving closer to establishing stand-alone human rights policies, it has emerged.
Whereas many firms claim to have embedded UN guiding principles on business and human rights into their corporate and social responsibility policies, top City firms such as Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) are working towards creating human rights policies of their own.
Once in place, these international firms could share learning via debates and seminars and liaise with the Law Society to assist smaller domestic firms to implement policies of their own.
The guiding principles were proposed by John Ruggie, then special representative of the UN secretary-general for business and human rights, and endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011.
Under the guidelines, all businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights and prevent any abuses in which they could be directly or indirectly involved. They have to “know and show” that they are respecting human rights throughout their operations.
In 2011, Legal Futures reported leading legal charity Advocates for International Development (A4ID)  calling for firms to have a “publicly available, high-level policy commitment to respect human rights”.
Now, according to HSF partner Louise Moore, who leads the firm’s sustainability group, that is getting closer to becoming a reality.
She said: “A human rights policy has got to be something fundamentally more than just a few lines saying ‘we’re going to do our bit’. It has to be embedded within the business and demonstrable in terms of performance and procedures.”
According to Ms Moore, there is “senior partner buy-in” across six top City law firms, but the complexity of formulating the policy means the working groups putting them together have agreed to “more haste, less speed”.
The Shift Project – the body taking the lead on putting the principles into practice – said there has been encouraging signs of engagement from law societies and bar associations.
The Law Society recently set up a business and human rights advisory working group to look at how best to disseminate what is required of lawyers under the principles. It is holding training for members.
Ms Moore said the developments are “exciting” and have the backing of young up-and-coming lawyers who are engaged with human rights issues.
But she accepted there was still “a lot to do and expertise and insight to share” across the legal sector.
She said: “It is not enough to be there advocating approaches to clients, we must make sure our own house is in order. Therefore it is highly unlikely you will see any real proportion of the legal sector genuinely having fully informed, implemented and auditable policies by the year end.”
Ms Moore said that even small firms with no international clients have questions to ask themselves, for example in terms of their own employees.
But she accepted there is an element of size and scale which will impact on smaller firms’ attitude towards implementing a stand-alone human rights policy, with global firms having the resources to examine the issues in depth.
She predicted that the legal sector will now begin to build policies “level by level”. Such policies do not mean, however, that firms will disengage from certain clients and sectors. It would be “extremely unlikely and a last resort” for a lawyer to refuse work on the basis of their firm’s policy.
Ms Moore said there is little prospect of “tension” between human rights policies and the fundamental right for individuals to have legal representation.
She added: “What is much more relevant to us is assisting our clients in avoiding any breaches in the first place. We will work with them in terms of how to implement the policy and how they roll it out through legal contracts.
“We don’t work in a perfect world and neither do our clients. There will be either infringements or alleged infringements and the important role for the legal sector to play is working with clients to make sure they understand what needed of them: if there is an infraction, how to go about remedying that.”