Pro bono & community action: Cloisters barristers’ valiant Chagos exiles pro bono loss

When the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands sought to bring a compensation claim against the UK Government, barristers from Cloisters chambers took the matter on a pro bono basis.

The story begins in the 1960s, when the Government handed the Chagos Islands to the US for use as a military base. The native population was forced to relocate to the Seychelles and Mauritius. The majority were fishermen and agricultural workers who found themselves living in urban slums.

Robin Allen QC of Cloisters initially took the case as a pro bono matter, but subsequently obtained funding for the fight. He argued that the Chagossians were victims of a new tort – that of unlawful exile. Unfortunately, on 9 October, Justice Ouseley rejected the Chagossian’s claims.

In another high-profile pro bono matter, barristers from the set advised a UK citizen who was tortured by agents of the state while in Saudi Arabia.

The set

Employment is the single largest practice area at Cloisters, and its barristers are in hot demand to advise on pro bono matters. The set insists that members devote a minimum of five days per year to pro bono work. Barristers work for the Bar Pro Bono Unit and legal charity Law for All, the bulk of which is employment and social security work. Cloisters is also heavily involved with the Employment Law Advisory Service, representing claimants seeking an appeal from the decisions of employment tribunals.

Much of the work reaches barristers on an informal basis. Adam Solomon, a junior barrister at the set, found himself doing pro bono work for a carpenter after he had installed shelves in his flat. Solomon says that given the nature of Cloisters’ work and its reputation for legal crusading, “a lot of our cases start out as pro bono matters before people eventually get public funding”.

He insists that not all pro bono matters are as glamorous or high profile as that of the Chagos Islanders. “Grotty little tribunals, that’s where the real hard work happens,” he says. And pro bono work, he says, is largely a thankless task. “A lot of clients don’t understand that you’re acting pro bono,” says Solomon. “It’s rarely as exciting as the Chagos case, it’s not financially rewarding, and you don’t get the glory.” However, as Solomon puts it, “it’s a chance to help get somebody what they are owed”.

The Lawyer verdict

Although it lost the Chagos case, Cloisters’ commitment to pro bono work should be applauded. The set is unusual in insisting on five days of pro bono from each of its barristers, a commitment rarely seen at the bar or in solicitors’ firms. The programme also allows barristers real flexibility in determining how they spend this time. The result is a pro bono programme that, although heavily employment focused, encompasses both the more mundane but worthy employment tribunal matters and the high-profile legal crusades.