The Korean Public Interest Lawyers' Group, Gong-Gam's 5th anniversary seminar
‘Public interest law activities: achievement and challenges’
On May25, 2009, Gong-Gam held the 5th anniversary seminar ‘Public interest law activities: achievement and challenges.’ The seminar started with congratulatory speeches by a senior member of legal circles, Mr. Seung-Hun Han and the head of the International Association of Korean Lawyers, Mr. Dae-Hyun Cho.
Mr. Han defined the public interest law activity as “actions that actualize equality for everyone through the law” and stressed that “Gong-Gam's activities are epoch-making because the organization takes charge of the area that other human rights lawyers cannot manage.
The seminar moderator was Professor Ha Seung-soo from Cheju University, and Mr. Pil-gyu Hwang, a lawyer from Gong-Gam, Ms.Patricia Goedde, a professor at Sungkyunkwan Law School, and Mr. Aronld F. de Vera, a lawyer from the Philippine Alternative Legal Assistance Center directed the discussion.
Mr. Hwang addressed the topic “Korean public interest law activities: achievement and challenges”. He presented a brief overview about the history of the Korean public interest law movement and explained Gong-Gam’s structure, activities, funding, and public relations activities as a model case. He reaffirmed that because the public interest law movement is not perfect yet, there are many things to be done by Gong-Gam.
Professor Goedde presented a paper titled “Recent Trends and Dilemmas in the Portrayal of U.S. Public Interest Law.” Previously ‘legal aid’ and ‘pro bono’ were two separate concepts. However, within the last 10 years these two legal concepts, with ‘law school programs,’ have expanded and established public interest law as containing 3 main elements. Additionally, she stated that “lawyers’ interest in pro bono is increasing and there is a shared opinion of its necessity. Many law schools are expanding programs related to public service or pro bono work.” And lastly, she hoped that public interest law will be established as a major field in Korea.
And lastly, Mr. Vera presented a paper titled, “A Perspective on Public Service Lawyering in the Philippines.” He explained that Philippine's public interest law activities began during a strict political environment. Mr. Vera recounted a historical event that groups of Philippine lawyers,, like the ALG (Alternative Law Groups, Inc.), accomplished, such as passing a bill that protects the rights of indigenous people, workers, the urban poor and the homeless. Also, he discussed his concern regarding how far to expand ALG’s scope of activities.
After a 30-minutes break, debates followed. In addition to the three people who presented papers, Mr. Kyoung-shin Park, the head of a public interest law center of People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), Mr. Jol-chul Kim, a professor at Yonsei Law School, Ms. Eun-suk Ryu, from the human rights research center 'Chang', Mr. Yu-sik Jang, the chairperson of Minbyun's public lawsuit committee, and Mr. Kim Ki-duk, a president of Labor Law Center also participated.
The debate opened with a comment from Mr. Kim. He pointed out that the meaning of public interest law is very ambiguous and abstract, and because public interest law concepts are not defined concretely, concept meanings change with each group the relevant public interest law represents. He also indicated that the extended participation of non-lawyers can misrepresent the essence of public interest law activities. Also, Mr. Kim added that in cases where organizations rely on financial support from big law firms and business enterprises, like Gong-Gam, it is impossible for the interests of the financial supporters to be not influential. His comments directly address the real problems facing Gong-Gam currently.
The valuable voice from the field was also heard. In a laudatory speech given by activist Ms. Ryu, she said that the current situation where activists play passive roles and entrust all of the work and responsibility to lawyers should be improved. She also hopes that lawyers and relevant parties (marginalized people in society) will thoroughly strengthen their solidarity within public interest law activities.
In addition, Mr. Jang gave an outline of Minbyun's public lawsuit committee's activities, and Professor Kim and Professor Park spoke about the value of the public interest law movement as a social change movement and requested that efforts to improve public interest law activities be given to weak areas.
All of the experts, including discussion participants and panels gave Gong-Gam encouragement and unforgettable advice. Everyone jointly expressed how they are anticipating more impressive activities from Gong-Gam in the future. As the first lawyers' group specializing in public interest law in Korea, there were a lot of unexpected difficulties and pressures. However, the love and effort of Gong-Gam members, donators, and activists made it possible for us to celebrate the 5th anniversary of Gong-Gam and discuss the future direction of public interest law activities.