Saimo Chahal

This was a BLD interview with Debo Nwauzu in January 2008. Read more about Saimo Chahal in the Directory

Our Lawyer of the Month is Saimo Chahal, a partner at Bindmans & Partners who heads up the Civil Liberties and Social Welfare Team in the Public Law and Human Rights Department.

Saimo graduated from Sussex University in 1982 with a BA Honours in Sociology. She then worked for several years as a caseworker at the Brighton Rights Advice Centre, largely on Immigration and Housing law cases. She did her Solicitors’ Finals at the College of Law completing this in 1988. Saimo did part of her Articles at the North Lewisham Law Centre and the part half at Hornby and Levy, a law firm in Brixton,  London. Her supervisor, Marcia Levy did Mental Health work and she became very interested in this area of work as she thought it was interesting as it raised issues about fundamental human rights.

Saimo qualified as a solicitor in 1990 and after qualifying, she joined Battersea Law Centre as the Supervising Solicitor and when this was closed down by Wandsworth Council, she joined the law firm, Hanne & Co in Lavender Hill, South West London, handling Employment, Housing and Mental Health cases. She joined Bindman & Partners in 1993 and became a partner in 1995.

Saimo’s current areas of practice are in Mental Health law, Healthcare, Inquests, Inquiries, Prison Law and other Public Law cases.  These areas all raise Human Rights issues.

Saimo is passionate about her clients’ rights, is highly regarded and acknowledged as a dynamic practitioner who does cutting edge human rights cases. She won the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year 2006 in the Mental Health category for “repeatedly pushing the boundaries of the law on behalf of those with mental illness, learning difficulties and other particularly vulnerable individuals.” The judges, which included Cherie Booth QC and Doreen Lawrence, of the Stephen Lawrence Trust, praised Saimo’s work in bringing ground-breaking cases which have helped to protect and extend the rights of these most vulnerable people. Chambers states that she is “known as a fierce litigator in pursuit of her clients’ rights” and has a “reputation for efficiency and a proven track record in her areas”. She is ranked in band 1 for mental health work and second in Civil Liberties in Chambers and Partners 2007.

The case of Peter Sutcliffe was referred to her by another solicitor because she “takes on difficult cases”. For Saimo this case raises the issue of how we treat mentally ill people who have committed heinous crimes and she is concerned that there is a huge amount of information in the public domain about this case that is simply untrue. She sees her role as” challenging the perception of the role of lawyers, providing representation to those who are disenfranchised, putting aside preconceptions and looking at the mentally ill person and the issues her/his case raises”

Saimo has handled many leading cases involving Article 2 (right to life) and  Art 8 (right to family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which have set legal precedents including:

 

  • R (JL) v the Secretary of State [2007] EWCA CIB 767 involving JL, who attempted suicide at Feltham Youth Offenders Institution, resulting in permanent brain damage.  The Court of Appeal accepted that the simple fact of a death or serious injury of a person in custody gives rise to an obligation on the State to conduct an Article 2 compliant investigation.  The case has far reaching implications.  The Secretary of State has petitioned the House of Lords and the hearing will take place next year.  The Public Inquiry ordered by the Court will commence in 2008, nonetheless. 
  • R (LD) v Secretary of State for the Home Department (CA) [2006] .  This and who attempted suicide.  The case concerned the ambit of an Article 2 ECHR Inquiry.  The case established that it should be in public, independent, involve the next of kin and be properly funded.  The case has had far reaching implications as to the nature and terms of independent inquiries in order to comply with Article 2.  
  • D in the Public Inquiry   Saimo represents D in the first ever Art 2 compliant public Inquiry into a near death suicide, which seeks to establish how D ended up with catastrophic brain damage whilst in the custody of the State.  Also, as to what lessons can be learned by the Prison Service.  The Inquiry will make recommendations about changes in policy and practise so as to prevent future incidents.
  • R (RC and SM) on behalf of the Mental Health Lawyers Association) v the LSC [2007] Admin currently acting for the Mental Health Lawyers Association issuing a judicial review claim challenging the Legal Services Commission’s (LSC) decision to introduce a fixed fee scheme for mental health work from January 2008 which Saimo described as “recklessness” on the part of the LSC in ignoring the views of those at the sharp end of the reforms.
  • The case of Debbie Purdy, who is seeking to change the law on assisted suicide. The case is supported by Dignity in Dying and has received considerable media attention.  Ms Purdy suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and wishes to avail herself of an assisted suicide when life becomes intolerable.  She seeks to change the law on assisted suicide, and request that the DPP issue a policy statement that he will prosecute friends or relatives who assist with a medically assisted suicide in line with current practise, where a person avails him/herself of the services of Dignitas in Switzerland, where medically assisted suicide is legal.
  • Saimo acts for Peter Sutcliffe (now Coonan), the man who came to be known as the “Yorkshire Ripper”.  He was convicted in 1981 of 13 charges of murder and seven charges of attempted murder. He began his sentence at Pankhurst Prison but  3 years later was diagnosed with schizophrenia and transferred to Broadmoor high security hospital, where he is detained under s.47 of the  Mental Health Act 1983. Saimo acts for Peter Coonan with regard to his mental health case and also on his application to set his tariff as the Secretary of State is in breach of Article 5 (right to protection from arbitrary detention and imprisonment) of the ECHR in failing to set a tariff.

 

She is a member of the Law Society’s Mental Health & Disability Sub-Committee; an Assessor for the Law Society’s Mental Health Tribunal Panel; President of the Southern Region of the Mental Health Review Tribunal; an appraiser for the Mental Health Review Tribunal Panel; and Chair of the Legal Services Public Funding Review Committee; Also on the Advisory Committee of Peace Brigades International.

 

Saimo writes and lectures regularly on Public law, mental health and community care law. Her publications include Seclusion Before and After Munjaz; The Scope of the Article 2 Investigative Obligation ( joint article); Mental Health Law and the Human Rights Act; False Imprisonment in Mental Health Cases; Adults who lack Mental Capacity - the use of Declaratory Relief proceedings; The Draft Mental Health Bill; The Interaction between Community care and Housing Law; Mental Health and Judicial Review; Solicitors in a Fix (which was about Legal Aid fixed fees).

 

Below is our interview with Saimo:

 

BLD: What was your route into the legal profession?
SC: My family did not want me to go to university and therefore there was no obvious route for me to follow.  Whilst at university, I became interested in volunteering at a legal advice centre in Brighton.  There I met many interesting people and I became interested in using law, in the widest sense, as a campaigning tool to change the law as well as using the law as a tool to promote the rights of disadvantaged people.  A career in the law per se seemed too conventional and hidebound.  At that stage, all I was interested in was working for a law centre, which I thought had a much more interesting and dynamic approach to the law.

 

Whilst I was volunteering at Brighton Rights Advice Centre I was encouraged by a friend, Steve Balsam (now Lord Balsam, who also lived in Brighton, but was working at Deptford Law Centre) who suggested that a job which was being advertised at the Law Centre was right up my street.  I applied and did not get the job the first time because I was told I did not have enough experience.  I got it the second time around when it was re-advertised.

 

BLD : Why did you choose a legal career?
SC I suppose it was a genuine choice in the sense that there was no background of the law as a career in my family.  I chose the law because the idea of advancing and enhancing the rights of people who are disadvantaged seemed like a worthwhile thing to do.  I thought it was a career in which I could make a difference.

 

BLD : If you were to choose a role/profession other than law, what would it be and why
SC
: Having been involved in the law for over 25 years, I can vouch for it being a highly demanding, high octane job, which leaves little space for anything else.  The law impinges on all areas of one’s life and the sort of law that I do is very interactive and lawyers in it are part of a community with similar values and take on political issues - which it is difficult to escape from.  By that I mean a lot of my social life is also bound up with other lawyers.  I feel that I have little time to nourish the creative and artistic side of me which seems deeply buried.  Of course I go to lots of art exhibitions and theatre and cinema, but if I were choosing a different career now, it would be something that was a contrast to the law.  So, it would have to be something which enabled me to create beautiful environments, interior design, where I could go to lots of antique sales, travel the world and pick up beautiful “objects” made by remote tribesmen in the Himalayas, or Peru or somewhere – the only problem is that I am not sure that my political conscience would feel very easy with this!

 

BLD : What was the best career advice you were given?
SC: I do not recall any good career advice.  I went to a sixth form college, where I expect there was a careers advisor, but I do not recall the advice.

 

 

BLD: What was the worst career advice you were given?
SC: The worst career advice I was given was by my family: they said don’t go to university and that I should get married and settle down.
 

 

BLD : What career advice would you give to other lawyers?
SC :  Try to gain experience in different areas of law so that you know what you want to do. Try to specialise in an area you feel passionate about. Too many law students say they want to go into law and don’t really have a good reason … apart from the millions they want to make, and then end up in the City with lots of money but lacking any commitment to anything morally or socially worthwhile.

 

BLD : Who is the person you most admire (dead or alive) and why?
SC: I admire different people for different achievements - in the area of advancing civil rights and for enduring hardships and persecution it would be Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Justice Albie Sachs (of South Africa).

 

BLD: What are you most passionate/happiest about?
SC: I am most passionate about injustice against people who are vulnerable or disadvantaged.
 

BLD: What are your dislikes?
SC: I dislike disorder and inefficiency of any sort. I am the most organised person I know!

 

BLD: What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
SC: When the first announcements were made about reform of the Legal Aid system.  There have been many reforms since then, but the first time which signalled the demise of the Legal Aid system was very depressing.
 

 

BLD : Tell us about your professional high point(s).
SC: Winning cases which really make a difference, and which have a wider public interest element can be very invigorating.  Also moments such as being awarded the Mental Health Lawyer of the Year award.

 

 

BLD : What was the most famous/interesting case(s) you have handled to date?
SC : I have done a fantastically interesting range of cases so it is difficult to pinpoint one or two.  I have done a recent spate of cases about Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  The cases have set precedents and established: what an Article 2 compliant investigation should involve, what the legal threshold is to trigger an Article 2 investigation and what the test is for a substantive breach of Article 2. I also act for Peter Coonan (formerly Sutcliffe), the “Yorkshire Ripper”.  His case is very unusual and interesting.

 

 

BLD: How do you cope with the media attention?
SC: I have dealt with many cases which have attracted media attention.  I decide when to publicise cases if they are going to be sympathetically and properly reported in the media.  I shun media attention when the media’s interest is in salacious reporting, or when a distorted picture is going to be painted.
 

 

BLD: Any professional regrets?
SC: None
 

 

BLD: If you could rule the world for a day what would you change/do?
SC: I would ban the use of motorised vehicles and make everyone travel by bike (or by foot) in the hope that this may transform their views about the value of cycling as well as help to save the environment for a little longer.

 

 
BLD: Do tell us about your family status/life, place of birth, little known facts about you etc.
SC: I have two children - a daughter, Asta aged 13 and a son, Jamie, aged five.  My partner, Stephen, is also a lawyer.  We try not to talk “shop” in front of the children – though sometimes this can be difficult to avoid! I was born in a little village in the Punjab in India.  I came to the UK in 1963.  I have three brothers and two sisters and my family emigrated to Canada in 1981.  When I decided not to follow my family’s career’s advice (not to go to university and to get married), we lost contact altogether. I did not see my family for 25 years after that.  I have now established contact with my two sisters