Last month, we were delighted to announce that the winner of our Picasso raffle in aid of human rights defenders was human rights barrister Hugh Southey QC!

Hugh specialises in public law in a wide range of fields including human rights, prison law, inquests, crime, extradition, mental health, terrorism, immigration, discrimination and elections. He litigates public law and human rights arguments both in judicial review proceedings and civil claims. Legal 500 states that Hugh is “at the top of the game as far as analytical skills and the ability to project powerful legal argument is concerned”.

We spoke to him shortly after announcing the results, about his career, pro bono work and views on the rule of law.

Becoming a lawyer

Hugh initially studied engineering, but switched to law after his father was prosecuted. He was inspired by his lawyer’s ability to defend the innocent and uphold justice.

He decided to turn his back on engineering because ‘working to combat miscarriages of justice was more appealing’ to him. Starting out as a criminal lawyer, he became drawn to the immigration cases handled by other members of his firm.

“I still remember my first asylum case.”

For Hugh, the most important aspect of being a lawyer is wanting to change the law for the better.

Pro bono

“I do a significant amount of pro bono work, most of which is not directly related to the work of PBI”, he begins. Two decades ago Hugh took a sabbatical to move to Texas and work with a non for profit on death row cases, which he is still in contact with today.

Hugh expressed his gratitude for the ethos of his chambers. “One of the principles that Matrix promotes is the idea of giving equal value to every type of work undertaken by its barristers. It is quite attractive to be a lawyer where your work is respected.”

A large part of the chamber’s work is pro bono legal aid, representing victims who are seeking justice. In addition, since 2003, the Matrix Causes Fund has committed over £1million to national and international charitable causes that promote access to justice, equality of opportunity, or a sustainable environment. PBI UK are very grateful for the ongoing support of the Fund, and the Matrix members and staff who make their work possible.

By standing in solidarity with PBI UK, Matrix is supporting and protecting threatened human rights defenders across the world.

“For lawyers and human rights defenders it is very important that litigation does not only benefit one person but also changes the law for the better.”

Rule of law

“It is the only way that you achieve justice in society. It means that people ultimately are treated fairly by the state.”

In Hugh’s opinion, most lawyers have a general sense of the importance of the rule of law and the institutions that promote it. That is certainly the case at Matrix, where Hugh worked on cases connected to the post-conflict settlement in Northern Ireland. He mentions the murder of a family in 1972 by paramilitaries, according to army records. Following an independent investigation into the cause of death, evidence was found that the army was found responsible. That has now led to an independent police investigation.

His work has seen him leading in 21 hearings before the Supreme Court, covering topics including European Union citizenship, the system of disclosure of criminal convictions and the extent of the common law right to a fair hearing. For Hugh, the benefit of seniority is the wider implications of his work.

“Lawyers are human beings. The most exciting aspect of this job is the fact you have an opportunity to change the system and to make a wider impact - when a case impacts on a wider community.”

He paid respect to non-legally trained human rights defenders, making the point that they become essential where the rule of law is weak and lawyers become less relevant. In more dangerous contexts, activists are forced to use other means to put pressure on governments beyond the law.

Risks faced by lawyers

Hugh often considers the risks faced by lawyers, expressing a sense of gratitude that he is able to take on challenging and interesting cases in safety. He is all too aware that his counterparts abroad put themselves at risk doing similar cases, and he has a deep respect for them.

“The nearest experience I have is connected with Northern Ireland where lawyers used to live and work in that kind of environment. I think about this issue quite a lot, especially if family risks are involved.”

He noted that the respect held for human rights lawyers in western countries enabled the peace process to run smoothly, due to a longer tradition of the rule of law and the ‘high esteem’ in which his profession is held.

“Those who take those risks are an important part of global society. Not everyone can do it, nor are they prepared to do it.”