To Practice with Integrity
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cara Nicklas is helping fight corruption
Published in 2020 Oklahoma Super Lawyers magazine
on October 29, 2020
Updated on November 6, 2020
In 2015, Cara Nicklas got a call from her aunt, who was part of a group of attorneys and judges heading to Beni, a city near the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her goal? To help those standing up against corruption in the DRC’s justice system. And to bring Nicklas with.
“My first thought was, ‘Where is Beni?’” says Nicklas. “And, ‘This sounds like a cool opportunity.’”
The Justice Conference, held through the Congo Initiative by the Christian Bilingual University of Congo (UCBC), is a biennial gathering of international lawyers to support Congolese Christian attorneys in the ethical practice of law. Nicklas notes that the corruption in the DRC’s judicial system is unprecedented and that, in many cases, a lawyer wins by paying off the judge.
And when lawyers refuse to pay? “That means your client will not get justice,” she says.
Those wrongly imprisoned in the DRC face horrid conditions and are dependent on visitors and volunteers like Nicklas for even basic needs. At the women’s prison, children are forced to live behind bars alongside their convicted mothers. “There are likely a lot of prisoners who didn’t get justice because of the corruption. They may be innocent, but maybe they didn’t have a lawyer who had enough money to bribe the judge,” she says.
The Justice Conference exists not to directly intervene, but to support lawyers and judges who want to stop the corruption. That’s what really drew Nicklas in. “We’re not going there to fix their problems—we’re going there to walk alongside them, let them know we care, and to the extent we can help, we want to,” she says. “Ultimately, it’s up to them to fix these problems. We’re not able to have a conference every two years and expect it to make these changes. We have to encourage more and more of them to not participate in the corruption, and fight to do it the right way.”
Nicklas has attended the Justice Conference twice, in 2015 and 2017, during which international lawyers sat with Congolese lawyers and French translators in an open-air tent. “We don’t participate in cases,” she says. “There are various topics that we’ll be asked to talk about, and when it’s our turn to do the panel discussion, each international lawyer might have some particular issue that they want us to talk about. But mostly we engage in dialogue with lawyers during breaks. … I really do think that the most valuable thing we do is listen.”
Pro bono clinics have been established thanks to the conference’s guidance. Another significant area of improvement has been justice for women. The DRC has been called the “rape capital of the world. … If you were a victim, you couldn’t get justice,” says Nicklas. “As those Justice Conferences have been held, you hear more and more stories of attorneys who have taken a stand, and are representing these women to combat that corruption.”
Nicklas was slated to go back to the DRC in 2019, but the conference was cancelled due to an Ebola crisis. Now, because of COVID-19, organizers aren’t sure when they will be able to hold the next event. Regardless, she says she will “absolutely” attend the next one, whenever it happens.
While she waits, Nicklas is applying Justice Conference principles at home. “I am witnessing more and more attorneys in the U.S. who are making misrepresentations to the court. … If we continue to justify little white lies and a lack of candor, I don’t know that we would quite get to the point that the DRC is in, but we do damage to the rule of law in the U.S. And I don’t want that to happen,” she says.
“As a lawyer, I think I have more impact doing this kind of mission work as opposed to going and building a house,” she adds. “It just seemed like a great way to use my gifts and skills to, hopefully, help effect change in another part of the world.”