Legal aid

From being on the front line to planning long-term strategies, Oxfam’s in-house lawyer Joss Saunders is one man who knows how to make a difference. Emma Vere-Jones reports

Four young children huddle round a computer screen, engrossed in pictures of flies on food. Their ‘classroom’, where the current lesson concerns hygiene, is in the Katha Community Centre, just outside Delhi. The town of 100,000 is highly overpopulated; poor sanitation, poverty and unemployment is a way of life. All in all, it is a rather unlikely place to find an English in-house lawyer.

To be fair, Delhi is not Joss Saunders’ usual place of work. As Oxfam’s legal adviser and company secretary, he is most often found in the relative tranquility of the company’s headquarters in Oxford. But he has just spent a week in India visiting a partner organisation to study the type of work that it is undertaking. It is a good reminder of why Saunders became a lawyer in the first place.

The legal department at Oxfam comprises Saunders, a colleague on the regulatory side (who is not legally trained) and a PA. There is also one full-time and one part-time solicitor purely for legacy work and who do not fall under Saunders’ remit.

Not surprisingly, Oxfam is heavily reliant on firms providing advice on a pro bono basis. Last year the legal spend for Saunders’ department of three was £73,000. That covered salaries, overheads and the provision of advice to 800 Oxfam shops, 23,000 volunteers and teams in 82 different countries. Saunders, I conclude, must be one of the lowest paid – but most satisfied – lawyers in the country.

The work at Oxfam falls into two main areas: humanitarian, which sees the charity providing relief during emergencies and in war zones etc; then there is the development side, which takes a long-term approach and looks at ways to
prevent disasters.

“When there’s a crisis there’s not a lot for lawyers to do,” he says. “There’s not much we can do in the event of a volcano in Southern Africa.” Saunders is involved in the preventative side, rather than the applying of bandages.

The Oxfam lawyers spend a lot of time lobbying the Government. Recently, the team was helped out by Kate Cook from Matrix Chambers, who prepared an opinion on draft legislation on the Arms Export Bill. There is also the running of campaigns, such as the recent Market Trade Campaign, which encourages consumers to become more aware of the way in which global trade can affect those in third world countries.

Fundraising also comes with its fair share of legal issues, with the charity making sure that money is raised in such a way that the greatest proportion possible goes to those in need. Oxfam also has to ensure that those companies with which it does sponsorship deals are using the Oxfam name to fairly represent their involvement.

In one case, a Dutch company sold its product by declaring that a proportion of the profits went to Oxfam. In reality, the charity had never heard of the company – or seen any of its money. Needless to say, the company soon felt the wrath of the Office of Fair Trading, the Charity Commission and even Anne Robinson via the BBC TV show Watchdog.

A major challenge for Saunders is providing advice in a huge number of jurisdictions. He cites the example of a call he received from staff in Kosovo, who were about to make a large purchase. “They said, ‘We need to spend over £100,000 and we don’t have a contract. Can you draft us one in half an hour?'” A little tricky when one is not au fait with the local law.

It is phone calls such as this that has prompted Saunders to undertake a major project: recording all the laws that affect non-governmental organisations in the jurisdictions where Oxfam is based. “It’s a global mapping exercise to see what main differences exist between laws in the jurisdictions which we support,” Saunders explains. “For example, laws that affect procurement and contracts.”

Lots of these laws are the same as those applying to commercial businesses; consequently, Saunders is on the hunt for lawyers who have worked in overseas jurisdictions that may be able to help him. Once the information has been compiled, it will be passed on to other charities so that they, too, can benefit.

Oxfam does have firms that provide pro bono advice on a regular basis, which include Clifford Chance, Eversheds, Linklaters and Lovells. The charity also instructs two local firms – Linnells and Brookstreet des Roches – on a non pro-bono basis for a certain amount of general commercial work, property work and leases. “We try and do as much of it as we can in-house though,” Saunders adds.

On such a minimal budget, and with such a huge range of issues to deal with, I begin to wonder how Saunders copes. “I don’t aim for perfection,” he says. “I aim to make a difference.”

Saunders’ road to the legal profession was not the usual one. After completing a history degree, he headed to Uganda, which at the time was in the midst of a civil war. There he worked in a remote village in the mountains, building water tanks and teaching in the high school – all for £9 a month.

“It was incredibly rewarding and motivating and gave me a sense of what I wanted to achieve,” Saunders says. “I wanted to get a professional skill to work on projects in Africa.”

On his return to England, Saunders went to law school, articled at Theodore Goddard, and then spent four years in the commercial litigation department there. “I really enjoyed it,” he says, sounding almost surprised. “The mid-1980s was a good time to be a trainee – there was a short supply of trainees and lots of quality work, and I was with a very good firm.”

But it was not to last. “I was always thinking that I wanted to do something a bit different,” he says. “I wanted to get the best training on offer, but I wasn’t planning to spend my whole career in the City.”

As it turned out, his wife Julia made the move for him, when she was transferred to Poland with her job at the Home Office in the early 1990s. Initially, he taught law part time at the university, as well as doing volunteer work for a number of charities. But a year into their stay, during a visit by Prince Charles, Saunders was asked to set up a Polish branch for one of his charities, the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum.

On their return to England, the couple moved to Oxford so that Mrs Saunders could complete her masters. Saunders sought some advice from partners at local firms in Oxford, one of which happened to be Linnells. He recalls: “At the end of the meeting I said to the partner, ‘I don’t need a full-time job, as I’m going to do some part-time work as a volunteer at Oxfam’. And he said, ‘Oh, we’re their lawyers’.” Fate had intervened.

Saunders worked part time at Linnells and part time at Oxfam, and eventually went on to become a partner at the firm. At the end of 1997, he moved in-house at Oxfam as a secondee from Linnells. But after a couple of years the two roles became too much and Saunders went full time at Oxfam.

“Things have gone full circle,” says Saunders. “From working in Africa dealing with developments in the third world, to my position here at Oxfam.”
For those interested in offering pro bono services to Oxfam, or helping with its global mapping project, contact Joss Saunders on or on 01865 311311
Joss Saunders
Legal adviser and company secretary

Organisation Oxfam
Sector Charity
Employees 4,000 plus
Annual legal spend Approximately £70,000 (including in-house salaries and overheads)
Legal capability Two full-time lawyers and one part-time
Legal adviser and company secretary Joss Saunders
Reporting to Finance director David Nussbaum
Main law firms Clifford Chance, Eversheds, Linklaters and Lovells (pro bono); Linnels and Brookstreet des Roches (non-pro bono)