Upholding human rights
For trainee Joseph Sherlock, whose interest in law was sparked by reading about Guantanamo Bay, the opportunity to do pro bono work for human rights NGO Reprieve was too good to miss.
How did your secondment come about?
In our Litigation and Dispute Resolution team, trainees can opt to do six-month ‘split seats’ whereby you spend three months in litigation and the other three months on a pro bono secondment. I spent my secondment with human rights legal action NGO Reprieve from September to December 2021.
What did your pro bono work involve?
I was working across some of the NGO’s thematic issues for the litigation team, notably torture accountability litigation, regional death penalty work in Africa and South East Asia and some of the secret prisons work. Reprieve famously represents detainees in Guantanamo Bay, but they also work with people in the detention camps in North East Syria. This specifically involves British women and children who are detained indefinitely without charge or trial in desert camps in Syria due to the UK Government’s non-repatriation policy.
My work generally consisted of researching procedural and legal points and producing case summaries, often for the purpose of identifying whether legal principles arising from these judgments could be used in Reprieve’s own cases. I also kept abreast of legal developments that affected Reprieve’s work and investigated new cases that might further Reprieve’s strategic goals. The NGO is often working in areas where the judgments are novel and there is little precedent, so a fair amount of legal analysis is required, mostly around what certain decisions could mean and the impact they could have on future cases.
What was your motivation in taking on this secondment?
As corny as it sounds, I first became interested in law through reading about Guantanamo Bay when I was around 17 years old. Legal principles that were subverted by sending people to Guantanamo – the rule of law, right to representation and fair trial, and innocence before proven guilty – inspired my interest in human rights and law. I then went on to read politics and international relations at university, so was interested in the inherently political nature of much of Reprieve’s work: Guantanamo and the North East Syria detention camps are both wrapped up with how the UK and US governments responded to terrorism, while the death penalty is rooted in colonialism.
Reprieve defends the marginalised and upholds rights that are foundational to a happy human life – the right to freedom from torture and degrading treatment and the right to life itself – and without which you cannot really enjoy society in the way we do.
How do such secondments benefit our people?
These secondments enable trainees to develop new skills, learn about new areas of law and interact with colleagues in a different work setting. These opportunities help young lawyers adapt and overcome challenges quicker than they might otherwise.
For me, it was fantastic because I was exposed to court proceedings at all levels. I assisted on a judicial review at the UK Supreme Court and cases at the Special Immigration Appeals Tribunal and the Court of Appeal, researched proceedings at the European Court of Human Rights and helped with pre-action correspondence for a tort claim at the High Court. I learned about new areas of law, particularly the European Convention on Human Rights, and gained understanding about how policy teams lobby Parliament to amend legislation and ensure that all voices are heard. It was incredibly interesting and I am thrilled to have gained a real breadth of experience.
What were your personal highlights?
Probably working on the cases of British women and children detained in camps in North East Syria. There is evidence many were trafficked by ISIS and obviously this is quite a controversial and topical area. What interested me was that it really exemplified Reprieve’s unique approach to investigative casework. It can be challenging to gather information from these women in the camps, so it is quite a fact-finding mission for Reprieve.
The litigation team works with its policy, media and campaigns teams to lobby Parliament and challenge perceptions of these women in the court of public opinion too, which is often crucial if the litigation is to succeed. Reprieve ensures that marginalised voices are heard, and in this sense, inclusion is at the heart of Reprieve’s mission. Watching how the teams work collaboratively to advance Reprieve’s strategic goals was fascinating. Above all, they are an incredibly intelligent, passionate group of people who really care about what they are doing, which I found highly motivating and inspiring.