Lawyers are helping the Human Dignity Trust obtain access to justice for LGBT people worldwide.

In 78 jurisdictions around the world it is still illegal for adults of the same sex to engage in private, consensual sexual conduct. Commonwealth countries constitute more than half of these jurisdictions.

Of the Commonwealth’s 53 members, 40 continue to make consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex a criminal offence. There are a further 16 jurisdictions worldwide that discriminate between heterosexual and homosexual acts in an age of consent laws.

Decriminalisation of homosexuality is a global issue that requires a global response. Playing a vital role in co-ordinating this response is the Human Dignity Trust, which uses international law to facilitate test case litigation in those jurisdictions that continue to criminalise homosexual acts. Together with a panel of international partners, which Allen & Overy has now joined, the Human Dignity Trust provides free support to local human rights defenders, enabling them to bring successful challenges to these laws.

Our partnership with the Human Dignity Trust brings together the work of two of the firm’s global networks: our Human Rights Working Group, which supports access to justice, and A&Out, our LGBT networking group. These groups harness the expertise of lawyers and professional support staff in our 46 offices in 32 jurisdictions around the world.

Our Human Rights Working Group brings together A&O lawyers worldwide who are passionate about using their expertise on human rights work. Through this group, we have previously taken on pro bono cases representing marginalised communities, such as the Roma in Hungary, submitting interventions and amicus curiae briefs. Previously, lawyers have assisted in challenging death penalty proceedings in the Caribbean and we have built significant experience appearing before the Caribbean Court of Justice and the Privy Council.

Since 2006, A&Out has supported LGBT partners and staff internally and externally within the LGBT community. A&Out, of which I am proud to be chair, now has an international network involved in business development, graduate recruitment, mentoring and social responsibility activities.

Many Commonwealth laws that criminalise same-sex sexual conduct are hangovers from the time of British occupation, including those in Jamaica, St Lucia, Grenada, and Antigua and Barbuda. Section 53 of the Belize Criminal Code, for example, is a legacy of British colonial rule. That section criminalises ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’, which is generally considered to include consensual sexual conduct between adult males in private.

The sentence for this ‘crime’ is up to 10 years’ imprisonment. This law, as it concerns consensual sexual activity between adult males, is currently subject to challenge in the Belize courts. The Human Dignity Trust has provided legal support, with the help of its existing law firm partners, to the claimant in that case.

As well as the ongoing case in Belize, the Human Dignity Trust and its legal panel are also assisting LGBT people from Jamaica who were forced to seek asylum abroad because of the harassment and violence they faced at home as a result of the country’s anti-gay laws. The trust and its legal partners have assisted these claimants in filing a petition and making submissions to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to prove that these laws are violations of Jamaica’s obligations under international law.

The Human Dignity Trust and its legal partners also advised claimants who were instigating a case at the European Court of Human Rights, which eventually pressured the Turkish government into lifting its ban on homosexuality in northern Cyprus: the last European jurisdiction to maintain such a law.

We believe that in partnership with the Human Dignity Trust and the existing 21 members of the legal panel, we can really make a difference when it comes to securing access to justice for the LGBT community in many jurisdictions where LGBT people live without the human rights and freedoms that we take for granted in the UK.

Jim Ford is a partner at Allen & Overy