Your organization’s case rests on committed and effective client engagement – this should not be underestimated.
As detailed earlier, engagement should be prioritized from the first moment of assessing whether the case is appropriate for strategic litigation. All client participation in the process should be with a view to empowering the client. Therefore, it is crucial that prospective clients fully comprehend, at the outset of consultation for case selection, the litigation process (both its general purpose and in their specific case), and the surrounding advocacy efforts, including steps and processes, time-frames, risks, difficulties, and expected client participation. All important decisions and changes should be fully consulted with the client, and their opinions, concerns and suggestions should be given due attention. Communicate openly with your client – especially regarding setbacks and disappointing results – and remain available. This can be made possible by appointing one focal contact point in the strategic litigation team, for continuity.
Your clients may be illiterate, not speak the language of the court, or even if they do, they may not understand the legal jargon your office is accustomed to using. Explain the process as many times as is necessary, taking great care not to use ‘legalese’ which may alienate or intimidate clients. This stems from the fact that refugees must be empowered, not left dependent on lawyers as a result of strategic litigation. Enable your clients to learn from the process. Interpreters must be used if necessary, and at all stages the client’s comprehension must be verified. Continue to engage your client by asking them to explain information back to you and asking questions to check they fully comprehend all relevant issues.
When legal agreements are signed it is important to clarify clientele and organizational commitments, duties and expectations throughout the process. Agreements should be drawn up and signed at the following stages:
- Upon consultation to discuss case selection minimum requirements;
- Upon agreeing to go forward with an approved litigation plan; and
- In the event of any significant changes to this plan
Participating in litigation must not re-traumatize refugees. Even when your organization has prioritized tact and sensitivity in collecting testimony and evidence, people may understandably still be upset by the process. It is crucial to ensure adequate psychological support for clients throughout the process. Staff working on emotional cases should also have access to such support, or peer counseling, in order to remain effective.
It is also important to remain aware of representational issues. If you are litigating on behalf of a group of refugees or asylum seekers, in a ‘class action,’ who is speaking for the refugee population? Who is not represented? Within an apparently homogeneous group, experiences can be surprisingly different – you should pay particular attention to women, children and minority groups among clients involved in litigation and its accompanying advocacy or outreach. Moreover, cohesion among the population should not be assumed: refugee groups may be made up of diverse ethnicities, nationalities and backgrounds – groups of individuals are not necessarily a community.