It might surprise you to learn that, for a woman so highly regarded in her field, being an English employment solicitor is not Sue Ashtiany’s first career. England is not even her first home. But then, Iranian-born Ashtiany has made a virtue of leading a multifarious life.
Now head of employment at Nabarro Nathanson – which she has put on the map as one of the country’s leading practices – Ashtiany has just been appointed to Vanni Treves’ Channel 4 board as a non-executive director. She is already a member of the Equal Opportunities Commission.
In true Ashtiany style, she is embracing her latest appointment, brimming with excitement and enthusiasm for getting to know the organisation at every level. “I’ve been watching the news being made,” she laughs.
Ashtiany has that priceless ability of putting others utterly at ease and turning the conversation around to whomever she is talking to. She is the kind of person who remembers small details about me from the last time we met more than a year ago, so I suspect she is already becoming a much-liked character on her visits to the Channel 4 studios.
Ashtiany arrived in the UK aged eight with just three words of English, taught to her by a thoughtful cousin: ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘pencil’. Her French-speaking, devout Muslim father had clocked that the world would speak English rather than French and set about finding a boarding school for his two young daughters. Thus began their entirely accidental education at a stage school in Surrey. “Dad didn’t know enough English to know what it was,” she laughs.
Ballet, flamenco, modern… you name it, she danced it. For three or four hours every day. “I can’t really think how I did any schoolwork at all,” she says. “It would have been Ofsted-ed out of existence nowadays.” But Ashtiany loved learning music and plays the piano to this day.
It was three years before her mother migrated to join them. A more ‘normal’ school followed for A-levels, then a philosophy and politics degree at Warwick before postgraduate studies in international relations at Birmingham.
Meeting her husband – the legal academic Paul Davies, who is now Cassell professor of commercial law at the London School of Economics – proved instrumental in her wanting to stay in the UK. He would also help transform her into an employment lawyer, but not before she embarked on her first career in a field closer to her own life experiences.
Having found herself an ‘alien’ in an entirely new culture, Ashtiany turned her postgraduate research into a study of second-generation Sikhs faced with juggling two cultures in the UK. Inspired, she took jobs first with the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, where she took cases to the Immigration Appeals Tribunal, then with the advisory service of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in London. The 1971 Immigration Act was by this time coming into force. “It was extremely full-on,” admits Ashtiany.
Among those coming into Britain at the time were tens of thousands of Asians expelled from Uganda after November 1972 by Idi Amin. “I found myself thinking that, with a flip of the coin, these could have been my family,” she says. Ashtiany joined in the voluntary work, taking warm clothes and spending time with refugees housed in deserted RAF bases. “They were completely shell-shocked,” she recalls.
At the UNHCR, Ashtiany was tasked with assessing whether individual asylum seekers could claim fear of persecution, as defined by the 1951 Geneva Convention. Her boss, whom she describes as inspirational, had been a Czech socialist, imprisoned by the communists before being granted refugee status by France. “I was just this 20-something girl deciding what should happen to asylum seekers. It was terribly humbling. I used to spend ages reading up about their different countries,” she recalls. On a rather more sinister note, she also had to watch out for infiltrators sent over by roguish states to track dissidents.
The blend of human issues and the intellectual lure of the UNHCR’s diplomatic role suited Ashtiany down to the ground. She became increasingly interested in the legal framework.
Meanwhile, she and her husband became increasingly broody. She cooked up the plan of combining exams with babies and returning to the UN as a lawyer. “I thought I’d go off to Geneva with a baby tucked under each arm,” she laughs. Two daughters and the requisite exams later, she changed her mind about the UN. “It became obvious to me that I couldn’t manage a peripatetic life in Geneva and I was much more involved in Oxford by then,” she says. It was time to start her second career.
Ashtiany had the kind of training contract that could only happen 20 years ago. At Oxford firm Cole & Cole (now Morgan Cole) she found herself thrust into the shoes of a matrimonial partner who was on maternity leave for 18 months, and spent the rest of her training contract working with the firm’s senior partner, known to everyone as ‘Mr Church’. Church allowed her to take on her own employment cases. “Everyone was a bit frightened of him, but actually he was very thoughtful and very interested in the law. He didn’t know anything about employment law, but he’d say, ‘Come and talk to me’, and he’d always make a sensible comment,” she says.
Ashtiany took matters into her own hands, preparing a paper with her husband’s help to convince Cole & Cole to allow her to build up a practice. The plan worked. After qualifying in 1986, Ashtiany gained partnership just three years later. Some early cases made her name, including Marshall v DPP, in which she acted for the ex-Royal Navy officer who brought a sex discrimination case against the Director of Public Prosecutions for withdrawing a job after it transpired that the applicant was changing sex.
Since then her client base has shifted heavily towards acting for the employer, partly at the former opposition’s request. “Often the employer, having been against me, would come to me and ask me to act for them.” She also grew the practice on the back of Morgan Cole’s client base and drew on her Oxford connections. When she quit for Nabarros two years ago, her clients – including HSBC and Oxford University – moved lock, stock and barrel with her. So too did the long-running and highly significant race discrimination case of Anya v University of Oxford, running since 1997, in which she defended the university.
After a string of failed appeals by the Nigerian scientist claimant, the case seems finally to have died a death this summer.
In the short time she has been at Nabarros, the practice has grown threefold in London, from five to 15 people, including three partners. Does she feel any tension as a result of her shift from championing the individual to defending the employer? Ashtiany is philosophical. “It’s a natural progression from acting for the individual trying to assert a right against a world not listening to him or her, to helping the employer anticipate what the appropriate workplace model should be.”
Her new role at Channel 4 is also, by nature, strategic in that she will be helping to ensure that the channel meets its public service remit in such key areas as diversity and regionalism. Ashtiany says she has no idea who recommended her for the Channel 4 board. “Perhaps I’ll ask now that I’m there,” she muses. But it is not difficult to see why she would be an asset. “I’ve lived in lots of different worlds,” she admits.