We are very lucky to live in a country where we can have recourse through the law. Knowing that when the Government, or a governmental department, law enforcement, or an individual does something wrong - we can turn to the courts, and we can have faith in the court to come to an objective decision. This makes a huge difference to how we can live our lives and is not a luxury that is afforded to all equally around the world.
My first international case was about a British-trained barrister, Ahmad Bin Quasem, or Arman to his friends and family. He was disappeared by the authorities in Bangladesh in 2016. I saw a message about his disappearance on Twitter, contacted the man who posted it and took on the case. I have been working on it ever since.
Arman is still missing so we try to keep his case alive, put pressure on the Bangladeshi Government, press for consistent media coverage, and push for his release. Lately there have been reports from a Bangladeshi dissident news source that there is a secret internal torture centre inside an armed forces base in Dhaka, where Arman has been seen, so the family have some hope that he might still be returned to them.
The case brought home to me how lucky I am to live in a place where the rule of law applies, and the Government cannot simply disappear people from the street. I am happy to use this privilege to help those who are facing persecution. That was the motivation behind starting my international pro bono work - the desire to help those in need who have the odds stacked against them.
My international pro bono work covers a range of legal areas. One area I work on is suspicious deaths abroad, including the heart-breaking case of George Low who was stabbed to death in Ayia Napa with his attackers fleeing to Turkey, and his parents' brave fight for justice for him. I have also worked for the Somalia Journalists Syndicate (SJS) and journalists including the brave SJS Secretary General Abdalle Mumin, currently being persecuted by the authorities and stuck between a repressive Government and terrorists. Other cases include the Australian-Vietnamese democracy activist Chau Van Kham, imprisoned in Vietnam for his work campaigning for democracy; and the World Uyghur Congress who are fighting for their peoples’ right against the Chinese state’s systematic repression.
All these cases involved brave individuals fighting against those in power as they stand up for justice and their personal convictions. Their cases inspire me, and I am proud to play even a small part in their fight.
A lot of cases come to me because some of my previous work has gained a high profile. In other cases I have been particularly interested in helping the individuals and families involved and I have reached out to see if they wanted some legal assistance.
Some of the things I have learnt from my pro bono work would have been impossible to gain otherwise. This includes engaging with the United Nation’s mechanisms and engaging with the media to try to advance the case of those who I represent internationally.
My earlier pro bono work laid the foundations for paid international work in a range of areas now being more open to me. Pro bono work can therefore increase a young barristers’ profile and instructing solicitors and lay clients may notice your work and instruct you in exciting new areas. Pro bono work also enables barristers to develop their career in a way that would not necessarily be available through a standard career in chambers. Undertaking pro bono work provides a wealth of information, contacts, and knowledge that can be applied to a new areas of specialism, and it is unlikely these opportunities would be available as part of a standard career at the Bar.
For colleagues thinking about volunteering to do international pro bono work, I would suggest that it is important to know about what is happening in the world. Keeping abreast of current affairs by reading the newspapers and following international news sources such as the BBC or Al Jazeera will help. It is also a good idea to learn as much as you can about different legal systems, including the international human rights system, and acquire knowledge about to how cases will be run, how to submit evidence, and the rules in relation to hearsay and expert evidence.
The advice I give when I speak to students or pupil barristers is that the law, much like life, is like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book (books that were popular when I was younger which are written from a second-person point of view, with the reader assuming the role of the protagonist and making choices that determine the main character's actions and the plot's outcome).
So go out there, look for the areas of law and issues that excite you, and see what you can do to help!
Find out more about Pro Bono Week 2022
Michael is the Chair of the Bar Council’s Young Barristers’ Committee 2022 and a member of Church Court Chambers. He practises in international law, crime, human rights, and strategic litigation.