BABSEACLE Organize First-Ever Pro Bono Conference in the Region

By Laura Milne, Access to Justice and Pro Bono Programme Manager, Hanoi

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? That was the question Malathi Das, President of LAWASIA, the Law Association for Asia and the Pacific, posed to the delegates of the 1st Southeast Asia Pro Bono Conference during her keynote address.

Some 150 delegates to the conference — comprising lawyers, civil society organisation representatives, academics, students, bar association representatives and government officials — gathered in Vientiane, Laos, on 28 and 29 September, to share their experiences on Developing pro bono initiatives to strengthen access to justice in the Southeast Asia region and internationally.

What does a falling tree have to do with pro bono? Malathi explained that if you don’t hear the tree fall, you don’t know it has fallen. If you don’t know it has fallen, then it probably doesn’t exist for you. If it does not exist for you, you probably will not see any need to do anything about it. But that does not mean that the tree did not fall or make a noise. It may have also caused a lot of damage. The longer the damage is left, the harder it is to remedy. Malathi warned that we may be ignoring the noise of the falling tree at our peril. So, what is this noise that our profession can’t ignore? It is the noise of men, women and children who need access to justice.

The Conference brought together individuals from 20 countries to share their many and varied experiences in promoting access to justice. Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, a Sri Lankan lawyer who has worked in his home country and throughout the region,  explained that, on principle, he has never charged a woman seeking to secure child support, because in his country such women are among the most marginalised in the community.

Khin Maung Win shared his experience of the development of the Myanmar Legal Aid Network (MLAW). MLAW aims to work with government, lawyers and civil society to strengthen the capacity of the legal community and implement a system of legal aid.


“I was extremely humbled by the work the BABSEACLE does and how much it has achieved with so little. It reminded me that when you have people together who believe in something very strongly – no matter how little they have, no matter how difficult the task ahead – good things happen. The one thing that really moved me was hearing the granny in the video describing how she felt when she received pro bono help: ‘I feel like I am sharing the same breath and heartbeat as my lawyers’.” — Malathi Das

We heard from Muhamad Isnur how LBH Jakarta, the Jakarta Law Aid Institute, conducts analytical mapping on social causes for their legal cases. In other words, they also look at what caused the tree to fall in the first place.

The Conference was a unique opportunity to bring together individuals and organisations with a range of strengths and resources to map out possibilities for pro bono partnerships. Malathi concluded her address by stating that we must ensure that there are always lawyers, law students or legally trained volunteers who will be around to hear the tree falling and lend a helping hand.

The 1st Southeast Asia Pro Bono Conference was an opportunity for those actors to explore how they might all work together in the forest.

It was a huge privilege to meet so many people working so hard to strengthen access to justice in Southeast Asia and beyond. We have already had some fantastic feedback from the Conference and have no doubt that next year’s conference in Ho Chi Minh City will be even better. Until then, I look forward to hearing from our delegates about the initiatives that were sown, took root and sprouted in Vientiane.