Skip to content

Litigating a Common Law of Justice – One Case at a Time

Litigating a common law of justice – one case at a time


Sanjana Ahmed


I first learned about the Death Penalty Project (DPP) in Professor Harrington’s International Human Rights Law course this Fall. While watching the video about the organization and its accomplishments, I was captivated by how just two people could make entire countries change their laws regarding the death penalty.


The DPP officially began in 1992 as part of British law firm Simons Muirhead and Burton (SMAB), with Saul Lehrfreund as the project’s only lawyer. Parvais Jabbar later joined in 1995. Within 20 years, these two remarkable men have elevated the DPP to an independent charity with international recognition, have both been awarded MBEs by the Queen for their contribution towards the protection of human rights.


Inspired, I began researching the DPP, learning that their main objective is working with local lawyers across the world, primarily in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, to restrict the use of the death penalty.  Everyday they help those who would otherwise have no legal avenues due to financial barriers. In Belize, for example, the maximum legal aid allowance, at just $190, is no where near enough to take an appeal to the highest court. The DPP used their network and the power of persuasion, and Belize convicts received the pro bono services of several leading barristers.


And it’s not just lawyers who donate, on average, $950,000 of unpaid work every year.  The DPP has obtained the pro bono services of medical experts and leading scholars at no cost to indigent prisoners.


Thanks to the work of the DPP, mandatory death penalty laws have been rendered unconstitutional in Uganda and Malawi, saving the lives of hundreds of prisoners. Across the Caribbean, the DPP has had over 50 successful appeals leading to death sentences quashed since 2006. Their work has also meant that battered women syndrome is now a recognized defence in Belize and they have recently published a report in association with the Bar Association of Belize on vulnerable groups in prison. They are now collaborating with an NGO assisting Taiwanese death row inmates to produce a handbook on psychiatric practice to recognize mental health concerns in inmates. And they have opened up dialogue with China and Japan on capital punishment – not an easy task.


The highlight of my year came in February when I got the opportunity to visit the DPP headquarters and meet the team in person. I first met with Annette So, Development and Legal Officer of DPP, in the offices of SMAB who explained its operations. I learnt how DPP receives calls from death row inmates and lawyers from all over the world seeking their assistance, how the yearly case load for DPP ranges from 30-40 files, and that the DPP has never turned down a case. I then met with Lehrfreund and Jabbar, who for two individuals who had just made the cover of The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine (March/April 2015 issue), they were incredibly down-to-earth and approachable.


It is clear that the one reason for their resounding success is their ability to work within existing legal systems. They do not march into countries, denouncing the death penalty and demanding it be abolished on moral grounds. Rather, they work within the law to change the law, soliciting help from local lawyers. If they are to have an impact, they explained, they need to understand the legal system and social context within which they are operating, and local lawyers offer crucial advice in this area. The DPP has also committed to empowering local lawyers and mental health professionals through training, seminars and workshops.


As noted by Baroness Vivien Stern, former Secretary General of Penal Reform International, Jabbar and Lehrfreund have influenced a “large number of lawyers around the world who they have trained, inspired and supported”.  It is this respect and understanding that have allowed the DPP to secure effective legal change.


Now back home, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect upon the death penalty – a penalty that Canada abolished in 1976. Canadian legal scholars such as William Schabas have made great contributions to both death penalty scholarship and the movement for its global abolition. Our own Professor Harrington has published on the mandatory death penalty in the Caribbean and assisted counsel with extradition cases to death penalty states. Canadian lawyers, and law students, have energy and skills to offer and I strongly urge others to learn more about projects such as the DPP. Their website can be found online. Or be inspired – and start your own law reform NGO.