On Friday evening I had the privilege of attending a reception entitled Breathing Life into the African Women's Rights Protocol which was part of the International Association of Women Judges conference which took place in London last week sponsored by Jordan Publishing and Family Law.
The reception was a collaboration between Oxfam and The Lawyers' Circle and featured presentations by Lady Hale (President of the IAJW) and Caroline Muthoni Muriithi (Convener of the Solidarity for African Women's Rights Coalition - SOAWR), followed by lively discussion from distinguished international judges, particularly from African nations.
Lady Hale confessed, much to my relief, that she had read the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the protocol) only recently. I highly recommend a look at it http://www.soawr.org/en/auprotocol/article/text. She pointed out that it is a progressive document which addresses problems which are not unique to Africa but common to many countries, including in the developed world. She highlighted in particular that the definition of domestic violence in the protocol is wider than that recently given by the Court of Appeal in this country until it was set straight by the Supreme Court, and that the protocol requires the availability of legal aid. Lady Hale wondered: does the UK perhaps need a protocol?
But a protocol is all well and good, the real issue is its implementation on the ground and its ability to affect the lives of ordinary people. Lady Hale stressed the need to "mind the gap" between the statute books and reality. This was the crux of Caroline Muthoni Muriithi's presentation. It took 8 years of lobbying for the African Union to sign up to the protocol. The protocol came into force in November 2005 and 33 out of the 54 African nations have ratified it. But that is just the start. There are numerous social and cultural hurdles to overcome to ensure that the protocol has practical impact including the application of customary law, lack of knowledge and information on the ground, and local and traditional attitudes. It requires a strong judiciary prepared to apply the protocol and for test cases to be brought in the higher courts to set precedents which lawyers can then cite before the lower courts. If the passion, intelligence and resourcefulness displayed by the judges present on Friday evening is representative of the judiciary as a whole, then this is achievable in time.
We are fortunate in this country that we do not have the same barriers to justice as those faced by many ordinary people in the developing world, but it was inspiring to hear the lengths to which some judges in Africa are prepared to go to ensure justice is done. Whilst our judiciary may not have to enquire after all the female members of a family to ensure they receive their rightful inheritance, or give their own private telephone number to a victim of domestic violence and make a personal complaint to the police on her behalf, I truly hope that the same passion for justice resides in the heart of all our judges. I believe it does, and events such as Friday's reinvigorate and re-inspire, and serve as a reminder of those basic common principles and ideals which we too often take for granted.
Hayley Trim is a Family Law PSL at Jordan Publishing and was formerly a family solicitor practising in London.
She works on the Family Law online major works providing updating notes on cases and other relevant developments as they happen for The Family Court Practice, Children Law and Practice and Matrimonial Property and Finance online.
Contact Hayley on Twitter: @HayleyTrim