Inter rail

Mitwa Bavisi has overcome some pretty tough obstacles as Union Railways’ legal counsel – not least the body of Mary Shelley’s mother. By Brendan Malkin

The story of Union Railways’ construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) has an epic quality to it, while its subplot has a touch of Gothic horror. Once the CTRL, which will connect St Pancras with the Channel Tunnel, is completed in 2007, passengers will be able to travel from London to Paris in just over two hours. It is the largest railway built in the UK for more than a century and involved the construction of more than 100km of track.

Epic indeed. Fittingly, the story also includes a reference to the 19th century Gothic-horror writer Mary Shelley. As the engineers were digging around St Pancras station last year, they hit upon graves from the old and largely forgotten St Pancras churchyard. One of the graves entombed Frankenstein author Shelley’s mother.

For Mitwa Bavisi, one of Union Railways’ two lawyers (a tiny team considering the size of the project), the Shelley connection was just one of many headaches encountered when overseeing the legal aspects of the construction. It was something she had not prepared for. Had she powers to remove the graves? Could they be touched? Either way, Union Railways wanted them moved so that it could build on the site.

The problem represents a microcosm of the myriad of bureaucratic hurdles Bavisi encounters and attempts to circumvent on a daily basis. The first thing Bavisi did when she got wind of the graves was refer to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act. This legislation enabled the project to go ahead in the first place, and authorises Union Railways to do things such as move gravestones. The act, for example, authorised Union Railways to cut up large parts of the Kent countryside during stage one of the CTRL development, despite a barrage of criticism from local councillors (stage one involved building a line from the English Channel to Fawkham Junction, near Dartford, which finished in September 2003; stage two, due to finish in 2007, will be between Cheriton in Kent and King’s Cross).

The act, known for its detail, amazingly included clauses authorising Union Railways to move the graves – including the one with Shelley’s mother inside. They have since been transported to another churchyard in London where they have been reburied.

But Bavisi had other difficulties. “I also had to comply with the exhumation laws and the Burial Law, which outlined the manner in which we had to deal with the graves,” she says. “This required going to special subcontractors.”

The fact that Bavisi has had to understand the law behind shifting gravestones shows the diversity of legal work she is burdened with. But as well as handling problems as they arise, she also has to comply with what she calls “a myriad” of third-party agreements.

“Union Railways has got around 200 such agreements it has to comply with,” she says. “These are mainly with other railway companies with which it shares railway line, such as Network Rail, London Underground and Eurostar. There were also about 600 undertakings to companies like Ford and Tarmac so that their business interests would be protected.”

Ensuring the agreements are complied with, and her constant need to refer to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act, means her workload is continuously intense. “There was also a big learning curve when I joined,” Bavisi says. Before she came to Union Railways she had no experience of railways or projects on the scale of the CTRL. Her previous job was as a construction assistant at Berwin Leighton Paisner and before that as an in-house lawyer at GEC Alsthom.

Bavisi has a shoestring budget. Her legal department is tiny, comprising just herself and one other lawyer, Rachael Mockler, who worked formerly at Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw. “We each split between us whatever work comes in, although Rachael does slightly more contentious work than me,” explains Bavisi.

In 2002-03, her department spent just £900,000, a relatively small amount considering the enormity of the project and the volume of legal work. However, the expenditure for 2004 was just a fraction of that at £250,000. This decline in legal costs was for two reasons. First, section one of the CTRL project finished in 2003, reducing the workload before section two got underway. Second, 2003 also saw heavy costs involved in renaming the company responsible for section one, Union Railways South, to CTRL UK, which is now responsible for running and maintaining the completed line.

It is possible that the company’s legal spend will drop even further this year, as Bavisi is carrying out a review of external law firms. “I’m always looking for best value for money,” she says frankly. The current list comprises Herbert Smith and Nabarro Nathanson. She hints that she might draw more on barristers in the future, which she considers to be “more cost-effective”.

Her guiding principle, though, is to use external lawyers as little as possible. “I instruct them mainly on construction issues or on major disputes for which we don’t have sufficient resources to handle,” she explains. The trick is to avoid disputes in the first place by using tact and diplomacy – she does not immediately slap the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act in front of people, for example, although she adds: “I know it’s there if we have to.”
Mitwa Bavisi
Legal counsel
Union Railways

Organisation Union Railways
Sector Transport
Employees 120
Legal budget £250,000
Legal capability Two
Legal counsel Mitwa Bavisi
Reporting to Managing director Alan Dyke
Main law firms Herbert Smith and Nabarro Nathanson