The Law Society is doing pioneering work on business and human rights.

The protection of human rights is an important priority for my presidential year. Not just the threats to the Human Rights Act and the European convention, but more widely too.

Business and human rights, the concept of lawyers using their influence and advice to assist where rights are threatened or abused, is an area of growing interest. In 2011 the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights put this issue on an international platform.

The legal profession is coming under greater pressure to recognise its importance, not only because of corporate responsibility obligations, but also the needs of clients and the complex nature of the work undertaken by the profession. This includes identifying human rights abuses, such as child labour, human trafficking or abuse of workers’ rights, not just in their own products and services but those hidden deep in the increasingly complex web of supply chains.

Solicitors are uniquely placed in this area and have much to gain from focusing their attention on it.

Growing awareness among companies will also drive an increase in requests for legal advice as part of their efforts to manage financial, legal and reputational risks associated with human rights issues. In addition, where clients are unaware of human rights risks, there is a growing role for solicitors to raise awareness and support clients in managing the issues. It is not only multinational enterprises that require such advice. As large companies work to manage human rights across their value and supply chains, expectations of, and risks for, smaller and medium-sized enterprises increase.  

Due to the growing awareness of, and progress towards, making business and human rights obligations binding, we have launched a programme to develop guidance and to help our members maintain their reputation as international legal leaders.

Working with experts in the field of business and human rights, we will be engaging with our members, offering them one-to-one consultations, insights into developments in this rapidly growing area and asking them what guidance they want from us.

The team helping us reach out to members and develop guidance includes Andrea Shemberg, Andrea Saldarriaga and Catie Shavin. They have all worked with the UN special representative of the secretary-general on business and human rights, John Ruggie. They bring a wealth of experience to the programme, including legal, international business, human rights and research.

We are the first national bar association in the world to look at this area and to create practical guidance and frameworks. Our members, both in private practice and particularly in-house, can have a massive impact on the lives of individuals, both in the UK and for those who live in countries where justice systems are less robust, governments are more powerful and human rights less respected.

Everybody involved acknowledges that this is a difficult and challenging area, but as a Law Society and as a professional body we are perfectly placed to encourage our members to make real change.

Jonathan Smithers is president of the Law Society