Last hope of the condemned

Stephen Jakobi

Stephen Jakobi gave up a career in private practice to fight for European citizens facing unfair trials in foreign states. Alison Laferla talks to the man with the 'over-large' conscience who does not want to be canonised just yet.

You can learn a lot about a man from his shoes. From the ankles up, Stephen Jakobi looks like a conventional lawyer: grey suit, plain tie, greying hair.

But, as his choice of footwear – a pair of rather trendy nubuck Ellesse trainers – reveals, this is actually a man who likes to do his own thing.

In 1993 Jakobi gave up a career in private practice to work full-time and for free for Fair Trials Abroad, an organisation which fights to protect the rights of European citizens outside their own country.

Strapped for cash and still fighting for charitable status, Fair Trials Abroad is well known for its work on behalf of a few high-profile and often highly controversial UK citizens, including the former nanny Louise Woodward.

The group, founded by Jakobi in 1992, is concerned with protecting individual rights rather than with large-scale abuses such as genocide. "Micro human rights" is how he defines the group's work.

Articulate and media-savvy, Jakobi is often the person television and press journalists turn to if they need a comment on the plight of Britons in prison overseas.

However, much of the group's work is not glamorous enough to attract the media. The relatively mundane day-to-day workload includes finding lawyers abroad to represent EU citizens, advising and petitioning the European Commission and national governments on human rights, and research. Jakobi handles most casework himself and subsidises the group when necessary.

In Jakobi's cosy office, at his house near Richmond, the law books share shelf-space with books on sailing, wine and walking – as well as a selection of cheap thrillers. A large model of a sail boat rests on the mantelpiece and the family dog lies on a bright green sofa.

Such a merger of home and office is appropriate for a man who sees his work as a vocation – not something he can simply close the door on at the weekend.

Formerly a litigation lawyer doing mostly personal injury work, Jakobi first became involved with trials abroad when he volunteered to help a Birmingham girl, Karyn Smith, in a high-profile drugs case in Thailand. It took three years to obtain a pardon. Jakobi became very emotionally involved in the case and came close to having a nervous breakdown.

"My wife would tell you, and I think she is right, that one of the reasons why I got so het up about this first case – and spent quite a lot of my own money and a lot of time and sleepless nights over this girl – was that, at the time this case was going on, my daughter was travelling through Syria, and the Gulf War was about to start. We were as worried about her as the girl in Thailand and I could identify very closely with how the girl's father must have felt."

The case made Jakobi realise that legal representation and a fair trial abroad were sometimes unobtainable for EU citizens and that nobody was doing anything about it.

It also led to other calls for help and, in November 1993, he retired from private practice to work on Fair Trials Abroad full-time.

The body gets limited EU research funding, but most of its money comes through membership and public subscription. The group was launched as a trust for all EU citizens in July 1994.

Jakobi says he does the work because he finds it exciting. "I'm one of those people who became a lawyer in order to defend people. I was never in it for the money.

"Just imagine the fun of defending people when nobody else will, half of whom are innocent."

Indeed, many of the people Jakobi speaks out for are extremely controversial. Definite question marks remain over the "innocence" of people such as Louise Woodward or the nurses who faced beheading in Saudi Arabia.

And some say any suggestion that UK justice is superior to "foreign" justice in some way is highly debatable, considering this country's less than glowing record on miscarriages of justice.

But Jakobi is happy with his work: "I get horrendous cases and this is really what it's about. So I am very lucky."

Asked to describe himself, he says: "I'm normally pretty easy going. I have very few principles."

But Jakobi says he "will fight you forever" on the few principles he does maintain.

"I think stubbornness is a very important quality in my work because you cannot give up. I am the only hope for a number of people in very nasty jails, who have been there a long time and shouldn't be there, and until they come back I will not give up on them."

Jakobi says the skills which help him most in his job are confidence in public speaking, an ability to handle the media and an active interest in politics.

And, he says, he is not afraid to pit himself against governments, sometimes in "very heavy circumstances".

Jakobi admits it is not easy to stay calm at all times. "I don't lose my temper very often but I can get very angry, and sometimes show it at the wrong time," he admits.

"I manage to control that sort of thing when I am speaking for clients, but I can think of some quite important meetings at quite high levels where things could have gone better."

Surprisingly for such a creature of the media, Jakobi has a relatively low profile among fellow lawyers, although his work, where known, is applauded. But as one lawyer says, "you wouldn't criticise somebody who carries out charitable works".

In the immediate future, he has plans to introduce human rights training for judges in EU candidate nations, beginning with Romania.

And, although he hopes to be involved with Fair Trials Abroad for a number of years, he would like to stop being chief executive and the organisation's main lawyer by the time he is 70.

"I am 63. And whilst I believe that I can carry on forever, like every senile old git , I can't count on it, and 70 at the moment seems a sensible cut-off point for moving over to being more representational."

During the interview, Jakobi took calls from the Foreign Office, various journalists and a relative of one of the people he is trying to help.

At one point he jokes to a caller: "Just send money. Don't canonise me yet." It is easy to understand how, to relatives desperate for help and getting nowhere with their government, Jakobi must seem heaven-sent.

His own explanation of what drives him is "an over-large conscience". He says "I am driven by a sense of justice and by the challenge.

"I get very depressed because, as anybody in the human rights field will tell you, you lose most of them. But the buzz you get when somebody comes home early and gets off the crime because you have had some input makes up for the 10 or 20 times when you just haven't been able to make a difference.

"Of course it is a vocation. I don't earn anything from it. I enjoy it."