The independence of lawyers, money laundering and the refugee crisis are among the topics up for debate at this year’s conference.
I am at the International Bar Association’s annual conference in Vienna, together with more than 6,000 lawyers from over 100 countries.
Since the opening ceremony is still ringing in my ears, having ended only a couple of hours before I write this, I cannot say how the conference will go. But if the ceremony is typical, it should be one of the best. The artistic offering, usually a caricature of the host country’s culture, was a scintillating performance by the Vienna Boys’ Choir. And the keynote speaker was José Manuel Barroso, former president of the European Commission.
I was not so impressed by his performance in office, but his speech - without notes - was compelling. The most memorable quote came in the question-and-answer session afterwards when he pointed out with a raised eyebrow that none of the millions of Syrian refugees appear to want asylum in the country now coming to the military aid of their government – Russia.
Everyone has a different take on an IBA conference, since it is such a large event. Most follow particular committees. I am interested in the bar and regulatory side, and there are stimulating topics for debate or decision (which has not always been the case in my track).
One of the discussions during my short time here so far has been in the tussle over the boundary between the core values of the legal profession on the one hand, and human rights principles on the other. You would think that there should be no conflict.
But what if a lawyer, under the principles of business and human rights, ought not to represent a client when the lawyer’s task for a corporate client could be directly linked to a negative human rights impact – not to a violation of the law, which would be perfectly understandable, but just to a negative impact short of a breach of the law.
This clashes directly with the independence of the lawyer, particularly that provision which states that the lawyer should not be identified with the client or the client’s causes (Principle 18 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers). There have been months of negotiations to try to resolve this dispute, between the human rights enthusiasts on the one hand and the lawyers’ principles enthusiasts on the other (although each side of course supports the other’s basic message).
It will come to a head this week at the IBA’s council meeting, where a resolution and guide on business and human rights are on the agenda for approval. I hope that the Law Society, working towards its own guidance on the topic, will pay attention to the arguments.
I am speaking in a session on Thursday - I am not expecting you all to come, no - on the subject of money laundering. I aim to raise a recent OECD report, whose title tells you everything you need to know: ‘Improving Co-operation between Tax and Anti-Money Laundering Authorities: Access by tax administrations to information held by financial intelligence units for criminal and civil purposes.’
The recommendations merely amplify the title by saying that, subject to the necessary safeguards, tax administrations should have the fullest possible access to the suspicious transaction reports made under money laundering legislation and received by the financial intelligence unit in their jurisdiction. To enable that, the report says, countries should provide the necessary legislative and operational frameworks.
Once the tax administration has access to information given in confidence by a client to a lawyer, who be the next will to receive it?
Law firms and bars outdo each other every evening in holding receptions in the best city venues. It is possible to do all one’s touring and evening dining just by accepting invitations judiciously. I am off during the week to the Kunsthistorisches art museum, the Habsburg Staterooms of the Albertina, the Remise transport museum, several swanky hotels, and the residence of Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Austria.
At the opening party, which was held in the extremely crowded Wiener Konzerthaus, I bumped into - warning, name-drop ahead - my namesake, Lord Goldsmith, the former attorney general. We bemoaned the fact that the main thing we have in common, which is our not-so-frequently-heard name, is about to be bandied about much more often because of the Conservative mayoral candidate for London, Zac.
So the IBA conference offers substance and trivia. Time will tell which of the two wins out this week.
Jonathan Goldsmith is a consultant and former secretary-general at the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs