Jean-Benoit Louveaux is a qualified barrister who joined JUSTICE as Head of Administrative Justice in July 2015.
Prior to working at JUSTICE, Jean-Benoit worked in asylum law and policy at Freedom from Torture (2014), Refugee Action (2010-2014) and Devon Law Centre (2005-2010). His policy work in asylum, which focussed on demonstrating flaws in the current legal aid system in asylum, led to two awards (The Law Centre’s Federation Innovation Award 2009 and The Lawyer Ethical Initiative of the Year Award 2013) and to his selection as one of three finalists for Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year (Immigration) in 2010.
Jean-Benoit’s focus and passion remains on improving the fairness, efficiency and accessibility of the administration of justice.
How did you arrive at the decision to be a lawyer?
I read mathematics and philosophy at Oxford University. At the end of university I had a more or less guaranteed place at a magic circle firm of chartered accountants, a common route for graduates in maths, but felt I wanted to do something “more for people”, as I remember expressing it at the time, so I ended up working in the charitable sector. Through a whole series of different jobs and experiences, I ended up as an environmental campaigner and protesting against the Newbury Bypass. I became involved in the legal process, both as a criminal defendant and as a civil applicant, and I found that I had a natural aptitude for it so decided to do the GDL in order to train as a barrister.
After doing well in the GDL and what is now called the BPTC I completed pupillage and my pupil master said that he wanted me to stay as a tenant. Despite very much enjoying working with him and many aspects of the Bar, I turned him down. It was a difficult decision because I had invested a huge amount of time and money getting to that stage. However, I knew that I wasn’t entirely comfortable as a barrister, although I wasn’t clear as to why that was at the time. Much later, I realised that the issue for me was that representing only one side of a case, when I could plainly see merits of the other side and sometimes disagreed with the case I was putting forward, conflicted with my sense of integrity.
So you were a qualified barrister with an aversion to the bar. What happened next?
I left the Bar and went back to environmental work, joining Friends of the Earth as assistant to their in-house legal advisor, the late, great, Phil Michaels. I helped him expand the legal department which, prior to my joining, had been pretty much a one-man band. However, even at Friends of the Earth, I found the work too adversarial and, operating at the level of international environmental conventions and law, somewhat disconnected from the person centred work I had set out to do.
After a bit of soul searching I found my niche within asylum law through a job at Devon Law Centre and, by and large, I haven’t looked back.
What has your career in asylum law taught you about access to justice?
At the crude end, for most people, access to justice literally means winning or losing your case. In asylum terms, losing means you face being sent back, forcibly or voluntarily, to the country you fled torture and/or persecution in whereas winning gives you the opportunity to try to rebuild your life in safety and security.
However, access to justice in asylum means a lot more than just winning or losing. It also means understanding the process: why the Home Office was so ‘hostile’ during your interview and why it refused your claim, why your lawyer decided your case wasn’t good enough to be represented at appeal, why the Home Office presenting officer ‘attacked’ you in court and why the judge didn’t believe you. For a lot of asylum seekers the entire legal system is completely alien to them. They are put through what, in very blunt terms, seems like a sausage factory that churns out decisions. They don’t understand how the factory works or why the decision was taken the way it was, and they are absolutely desperate and will take any means they can to extend the legal process.
In my view, access to justice means more than justice being done; it also means ensuring that those who use the justice system understand that justice is being done.
What happens when access to justice is not provided?
The asylum system is clogged up with asylum seekers not wanting to go back home because they feel their case has not been properly heard. They go underground, and then the enforcement officers have to try to find them, Parliament is clogged up with immigration bills seeking to grapple with the problem, each more regressive than the last, and the Home Office is swamped by asylum seekers applying for what is called a ‘fresh (asylum) claim’.
What techniques have you applied to avoid this?
At Devon Law Centre, and the subsequent project I ran at Refugee Action, it only took two or three hours to go through someone’s case with them to explore why their application had been turned down, ascertain the merits of an appeal and explain to them, in terms they could understand and accept, whether or not they had a chance of successfully appealing the Home Office’s refusal of their claim.
Away from the law, what was the last book you loved?
I keep coming back to Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance”. It is set in India and is a very depressing story but one full of humanity. A Fine Balance is essentially about people living in absolutely appalling conditions and doing the best with what they can. I don’t live a depressed existence, but I think a lot of people around the world have a very hard life, and it can be depressing to think of them. Rohinton Mistry somehow manages to touch this without being entirely depressing – a lot of warmth and humanity comes through.
And finally, who or what inspires you most and why?
Right now: my children. They are only 21 months, twins, and, as exhausting as they are, to see both of them develop and grow and to share their joys as much as their sorrows is a real privilege. I think being a parent is one of the most inspiring things you can do in your life… and also one of the most tiring!