Jemima Stratford QC

You are a public lawyer in a commercial set of chambers?

Brick Court also has a strong public law team. It originally became well-known as a commercial set, but about 25 years ago it began to develop expertise in EU law. In fact, many people would say that it is now the leading EU set. About 15 years ago, the public law side of chambers began to develop, including work before the European Court of Human Rights. We are now recognised as one of the leading public law and human rights sets at the Bar.

How did you get interested in public law?

At school, I had considered law as a possible career, but I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I spoke to a barrister who was the mother of a friend, and she explained to me that you do not have to study law as an undergraduate to be a lawyer. In fact, she suggested that it might be a good idea to read something different if you were going to spend the rest of your working life as a lawyer. So I studied history at university. While at university I began to get interested in human rights.

From what perspective?

Principally from an international and a current affairs point of view. In the summer of my second year, I was lucky enough to be able to work for about three weeks with Rakiya Omar. At that time, she was the executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, which was based in London. Through that work experience I decided that I was genuinely interested in human rights, and wanted to make it part of my work. I applied for a scholarship from the Wingate Foundation, and that gave me enough money to go to New York for a year.

After your degree?

Yes. I went to work for Human Rights Watch at its headquarters in New York – in the Helsinki Division. That division monitors the countries that are signatories to the Helsinki Accords – Europe, the US and Canada. It was a particularly interesting time to be involved in human rights issues in those countries as the Cold War had ended very recently. During my year at Human Rights Watch I worked mainly on Albania and Romania. I was particularly interested in the latter as I had travelled in Romania when Ceaucescu was still in power. Albania was also a fascinating country to study. I helped to set up the first independent NGO mission to Albania.

Did you get there yourself?

No, but I did go on a mission to Romania to investigate the treatment of people arrested following protests in the centre of Bucharest.

It must have been a pretty wonderful year?

It was great. At the end of the year I had to decide what to do next. I could have stayed on at Human Rights Watch, gone to another NGO, or done something outside the NGO sector. I went to a lot of people in the field for advice. With their help, I decided that generally the most useful and effective people working at places like Human Rights Watch had a background either as a trained lawyer or experienced journalist. I also worked out that I would prefer to work at a more grass roots level and take up individual cases, rather than as a campaigner where the task was more like that of being an investigative journalist. So, I decided that I should train to become a lawyer.

Did you hesitate about the choice between barrister and solicitor?

I decided – again with lots of advice – that if I wanted to do human rights work, there was more scope at the Bar to pursue my own interests alongside whatever work became my mainstream area of practice. And I think I was right.

Did you manage to keep your interest in human rights up while you were training?

The conversion year was hard work, and it was important to do as well as possible because chambers look at the results when you are applying for pupillage. I didn’t have much spare time, but I did work for half a day a week at Amnesty during that year, and carried on when I was at Bar School. I also helped with a pro bono death row case from the Caribbean and did some writing for the human rights organisation Interights.

Did you find it hard to get started?

You have to be prepared, particularly at the beginning of practice, to get involved in any human rights case that comes along, wherever and whenever you find it – even if you don’t get paid. So, for example, the first case that I did was one for Liberty where I was junior counsel in a case before the European Court of Human Rights. We won the case many years later so I did get paid for some of the work, but you need to be prepared to do human rights cases pro bono.

I think of you now as a specialist in public and human rights law. Is that right?

Most of my cases have an element of human rights or public law to them. I also do a lot of work that involves EU law.

Do you think that it was easier then than now to get work in human rights at the Bar?

If anything, I think it is easier now. There is a lot more human rights work about. It is much more of a mainstream area of work in its own right than it was even 10 years ago.

Do you ever wish you were still working in an NGO?

I certainly don’t regret leaving the NGO sector to train as a barrister. With the knowledge and the experience that I now have I think that I can be more useful when advising NGOs.

So your judgement was right at the time?

I think so.

And you enjoy being a barrister?

I do. You get the thrill and adrenalin of appearing in cases and arguing interesting points in court.

And winning?

And winning some of the time!