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Public interest law

Public interest law loosely, refers to legal practices undertaken to help poor or marginalized people, or to effect change in social policies in the public interest, on 'not for profit' terms (pro bono publico). In general terms it means a legal action initiated in the court of law for the protection of Public Interest.

It is not a body of law or a legal field, matters lawyers work on. Rather, it denotes the clientele they represent. Instead of serving powerful economic interests, it stands for the advocacy of otherwise under-represented or vulnerable individuals, especially those living in poverty. It has grown to encompass a broader range of activities, typically the field of non-lawyers like civil rights, civil liberties, women's rights, consumer rights, environmental protection, and so on. Nevertheless, a common ethic for public-interest lawyers in a growing number of countries remains “fighting for the little guy”.

At the end of the communist period in the early 1990s, the national legal systems of Central and Eastern Europe were still in a formative stage. The most important source of legal authority for the new human rights groups came from outside the region: the Council of Europe, with its European Convention on Human Rights, and the European Court of Human Rights.

Over time, in the mid-1990s, U.S. experiences became more relevant. The Council of Europe's prerequisite that lawyers use their own country's courts first to seek legal remedies before turning to the European bodies gradually became more than a pro forma exercise, and civil society organizations began to make more effective use of domestic means of adjudication. But by the time local activists were ready to consider the utility of impact litigation, test cases, and other tactics familiar from the U.S. experience, they already understood that their ultimate tactical weapon in any piece of litigation was to use the threat or reality of a supportive decision at the European Court of Human Rights. With this background in mind, it made more sense for the promoters of public interest law in Central and Eastern Europe to talk about "strategic litigation" than about public interest litigation. Using the instrumentality of the European Court of Human Rights effectively required a strategic approach. Not all human rights cases were likely to receive a favorable ruling; a negative ruling could produce more damage to the human rights cause than no ruling at all. The European Court had a rich case law that could provide clues to how a future case might be decided, and there were procedural aspects, such as the requirement to exhaust domestic remedies, to consider.

  • Howard M. Erichson, Doing Good, Doing Well, 57 Vand. L. Rev. 2087-2125 (2004).
  • Jeremy Rabkin, Public Interest Law: Is it Law in the "Public Interest"?, 8 Harv. J. L. & Pub. Pol'y 341-347 (1985).
  • Ann Southworth, Conservative Lawyers and the Contest over the Meaning of "Public Interest Law", 52 UCLA L. Rev. 1223-1278 (2005).
  • Patricia M. Wald, Whose Public Interest Is It Anyway: Advice for Altruistic Young Lawyers, 47 Me. L. Rev. 3-33 (1995).
  • Nan Aron, Liberty and Justice for All : Public Interest Law in the 1980s and Beyond (Westview Press, 1989, 166 p) KF390.5.P78 A96 1989.
  • Balancing the Scales of Justice: Financing Public Interest Law in America: A Report by the Council for Public Interest Law (1976, 361 p. & appendices) KF 299.P8C6 1976 Includes A History of Public Interest Law, at 17-76, and The World of Public Interest Law Today, at 77-161.
  • Bringing Justice to the People: The Story of the Freedom-Based Public Interest Law Movement / edited by Lee Edwards (Heritage Books, 2004, 218 p.) KF 390.5.P78 B74.
  • Gordon Harrison & Sanford M. Jaffe, The Public Interest Law Firm; New Voices For New Constituencies (Ford Foundation, 1973, 40 p.) KF299.P8 H37 Edited version of article originally published at 58 ABA J. 459-467 (1972).
  • Sanford M. Jaffe, Public Interest Law : Five Years Later (American Bar Association, Special Committee on Public Interest Practice, 1976, 52 p.) KF299.P8 J3.
  • F. Raymond Marks, The Lawyer, The Public, and Professional Responsibility (American Bar Foundation, 1972, 305 p.) KF 299.P8M3
  • Felice Batlan, The Ladies' Health Protective Association: Lay Lawyers and Urban Cause Lawyering, 41 Akron L. Rev. 701-732 (2008).
  • Edward Berlin, Anthony Z. Roisman, & Gladys Kessler, Public Interest Law, 38 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 674-693 (1970).
  • Susan D. Carle, Re-Envisioning Models for Pro Bono Lawyering: Some Historical Reflections, 9 Am. U. J. Gender Soc. Pol'y & L. 81-96 (2001)
  • Richard Frank, The Public Interest Lawyer, 7 J. Int'l L. & Econ. 180-186 (1972).
  • Charles R. Halpern & John M. Cunningham, Reflections on the New Public Interest Law: Theory and Practice at the Center for Law and Social Policy, 59 Geo. L. J. 1095-1126 (1971). Includes Appendix B: Nader v. Volpe: A Case Study, at 1122-26.
  • Judith Kilpatrick, Race Expectations: Arkansas African-American Attorneys (1865- 1950), 9 Am. U. J. Gender Soc. Pol'y & L. 63-79 (2001).
  • Ralph Nader, Keynote Address, 40 San Diego L. Rev. 7-18 (2003) (part of symposium, Summit: Taking the Offensive).
  • Karen O'Connor & Lee Epstein, Rebalancing the Scales of Justice: Assessment of Public Interest Law. 7 Harv. J. L. & Pub. Pol'y 483-505 (1984). Includes history of both liberal & conservative public interest law groups.
  • David P. Riley, Challenge of the New Lawyers: Public Interest and Private Clients, 38 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 546-587 (1970).
  • Francis B. Stevens & John L. Maxey, John L. II, Representing the Unrepresented: A Decennial Report on Public-Interest Litigation in Mississippi, 44 Miss. L. J. 333-390 (1973).


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