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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.
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