Stateless: a collaborative pro bono project

For this year’s pro bono week, we spoke to Steven Schulman of Akin Gump, and Ian Kane of Asylum Aid, collaborative winners of the 2021 Law Society’s Excellence in Pro Bono award.

Aslym Aid, White & Case, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Morrison Foerster, Reed Smith, Orrick, Dentons, Latham & Watkins, Akin Gump, Ashurst, Cooley, O'Melveny, SkaddenAwarded alongside twelve global law firms for their collaborative project addressing the issue of statelessness within the UK, Steven and Ian tell us about the challenges stateless individuals face, their work on the project and the importance of pro bono work.

Ian: “The problem facing stateless individuals is that the government doesn't give you anything the moment you end your asylum process.

“Without identity documents to prove who you are, you can't apply for anything. You can't access education; you can't go on any courses, you can't get married, you can't drive a car, you can't work. People are trapped in limbo for years.

“Nearly all our clients have serious mental health problems from this horrendous frustration. Many came here as young adults and are now in their 40s, and their life hasn't started yet. They're in a really difficult situation, it's a vulnerable group.

“Many scenarios may result in a person being stateless. A person may have left before ID systems were introduced or the country itself has changed. There are 23 countries around the world where women cannot pass on their nationality, and so children can become trapped so if they leave that country. They are never allowed back in, and they don’t know this until they flee to claim asylum.”

An entirely legal problem

Steven: “I became involved in this project because I believe lawyers have a unique responsibility when it comes to statelessness.

“When you boil it down, it is entirely a legal problem. It has everything to do with legal structures that we have set up that have failed people.

“We've decided to divide up the world and have different residency laws, and these people just fell between the cracks.

“It’s all about how we set up this system and that is a solvable thing. We just need to have procedures where we decide as individual countries and as a global community that we aren't going to let anybody be entirely stateless, that we are going to find a state for every person.

“So, we decided that we would take on this statelessness project. We reached out to many firms that are in the UK in the collaborative plan, and other firms decided that this sounded like a great project. It wasn't the first of this model, but it is a model that has really proven successful.”

Ian: “This project has now helped somewhere around fifteen to twenty people be granted statelessness. Without it, people would still be in limbo.

“It makes a massive difference. Once you get that status, that's it. These people can work, they can study, they’re properly in the system, they can marry and can get on with their lives.”

The importance of pro bono work

Ian: “Without the pro bono work, we wouldn't be doing this project at all. We would rely on grant funding which might give us a year or two, and then we’d have to stop.

“Another problem with that is that you lose the expertise, where this project enables us to have a series of specialists trained within our organisation work with all these lawyers, and then all these lawyers are out there continuing the work.”

Steven: “Pro bono work is really part and parcel of who we are as lawyers.

“Lawyers are in the business of helping people – that really is what we do when you strip it down to the basic essence.

“Our clients come to us for help with various problems – some are incredibly complicated corporate deals, some are also very complicated statelessness applications – but they're all clients at the firm, asking for the same thing. The reason why we do this work and why we're lawyers is because we want to help people.”

How to get involved

There are lots of ways to support pro bono work:

Looking for legal advice?

The Law Society does not provide legal advice.

If you're looking for help getting pro bono support, our page for the public lists some organisations that can help.

Find out more about free legal advice

Maximise your Law Society membership with My LS