Manjit Singh Gill

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This was a BLD interview with Debo Nwauzu in November 2008. Read more about Manjit Singh Gill QC in the Directory

Manjit Singh Gill has conducted many landmark cases, including high-profile terrorist and national security trials, ranging from the conspiracy to murder the then Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1986 to the House of Lords’ decision in 2004 on the indefinite detention without trial of suspected terrorists.

Manjit was born in New Delhi, India.   He came with his family to the UK in 1966, aged six years old. They settled in Smethwick, near Birmingham. Manjit recalls this period very vividly as Smethwick was an area of high racial tension and as a child he felt the tension and the verbal abuse both in and out of school. Smethwick was an area with a high number of ethnic minorities and Manjit recalls a lot of North Indians and those from the Caribbean, mostly Jamaicans, living in the area. Smethwick was, of course, also famous for 1964 election which was fought on racial issues and visited  in 1965 by Malcolm X, who was later assassinated after return back to the United States.

Manjit graduated from University College, London, in 1981 and was called to the Bar (Gray’s Inn) in 1982. He took silk in 2000. In the 1980s Manjit was active in the Society of Black Lawyers and involved in a number of initiatives to counter race discrimination in the legal profession. Whilst Sibghat Kadri and others started the Society of Black Lawyers, the new generation of people such as Manjit, Peter Herbert, and Makbool Javaid, were the new generation of lawyers who were pushing the racial equality agenda further within the legal profession. They had to fight for so much at the Bar Council. Changes included action on discrimination by barristers’ clerks, changes to the Code of Conduct and making race discrimination a professional ethics issue. Some of these changes opened doors for many of the lawyers today. Manjit hates to look back for the sake of it, but he said: “These were not just old war stories but what the new generation of lawyers needs to know in order to understand what to do to preserve their own identity and remember where they came from so that they can make things better for other minority groups. The fact that they have got in does not mean that they are all equal.”

In the mid-1990s he was involved in setting up the Discrimination Law Association.  In 1998 he was appointed, under the Special Immigration Appeals Commission Act of 1997, as one of the very first Special Advocates authorised to represent the interests of appellants before the Commission (national security cases). These cases have included challenging the removal of terrorist suspects to regimes where they face torture. The role of Special Advocates was originally to act for the “underdogs” in those national security cases where the appellant has very limited rights. However, when the Government wanted to extend this to quasi-criminal trials, Manjit and others wrote to The Times denouncing such a  move.

His immigration, asylum and international human rights cases have involved, for example, a test case which prevented the removal of all Kosovan refugees to Germany at a time when the European Immigration laws were not harmonised and Germany simply returned them back to Kosovo where they faced persecution. Another of Manjit’s famous cases is the Darfur case, which was an appeal against the Government for sending Sudanese of black African origin (as opposed to Arab origin) back to Khartoum, where they faced persecution. He ran the case successfully in the Court of Appeal, but the House of Lords overruled the Court of Appeal, taking the pragmatic view that the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal had rejected the application and that decision should be upheld because a specialist tribunal needs to be respected and the Court of Appeal should not undermine that tribunal. Manjit describes this decision as: “Depressing because at some point, a court’s decision absolutely needs to be overruled. The House of Lords in this case seemed to be supporting the court system, not the real issue – that is justice, both moral and legal.”

Another famous landmark case by Manjit was a case involving the right to marry which he won in the High Court and Court of Appeal and was upheld in the House of Lords. The facts were that foreign nationals were being denied the right to marry without the approval of the Home Office. This was discriminatory not just on racial grounds, but on religious grounds because those marrying in the Anglican churches could do so, but others could not without this approval. The House of Lords held the Government’s position was illegal. This was the first case on Article 12 ECHR (the Right to Marry) and, according to Manjit, the case: “Shows how far the Government was willing to go to ride roughshod over foreigners.” 

He has also worked extensively in the fields of terrorism, crime, right to liberty, fair trails, inquests and international law, Manjit was one of the lead counsel in the challenge to the use of control orders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005.  He has also appeared in litigation on the scope of the Crown’s obligations to protect its citizens in trials and detention abroad and the extra-territorial protection of the human rights of British Muslim men detained in Yemen on “terrorist” charges. He has also advised on death penalty cases in other jurisdictions. He has also worked on other public law and social welfare issues.

He has spoken regularly at international conferences, given seminars and training sessions in his various areas of practice, appeared before United Nations human rights committees, carried out fact-finding missions abroad (for example to the West Bank to assess the operation of alternative legal systems of communities under occupation) and attended many United Nation conferences. He will be speaking at the Bar Conference in 2008, where he has been invited to speak on whether the British legal system should respect the findings of Sharia courts and such similar courts.

Manjit is a member of the Bar Council’s Immigration Practitioners Accreditation Board and has previously assisted the Bar Council’s Committee dealing with direct access to the Bar. He is editor of Immigration and Nationality Law Reports and speaks Punjabi and Urdu.

Below is our interview with Manjit:

BLD: Why did you choose a career in law?
MSG: Straightforward for me, really, because I grew up in Smethwick, surrounded by racial inequality. I come from Sikh tradition, which strongly values equality. When you see inequality around you, as I did as a child, it does have an impact. I also enjoyed debating at school. Therefore, finding ways to address inequality was what I wanted to do. Besides, I was not good at the sciences!

BLD: If you were to choose another role/profession other than law, what would it be and why?
MSG: I have always been involved in human rights activities outside the law. If I must choose something else, it will be something like astrophysics because looking at the cosmos is phenomenal, but I doubt if I would have been any good at it!

BLD: What was the best career advice you were given?
MSG: Probably came from more than one person. The theme has been: “If you want something you can do it, but you have got to stick at it.”

BLD: What was the worst career advice you were given?
MSG: Can’t think of it!

BLD: What career advice would you give to other lawyers and budding lawyers?
MSG:  If you are going to enjoy law, be passionate about it. If you are not passionate about it, do something else that you are passionate about.

BLD: Who is the person you most admire (dead or alive) and why?
MSG: Not one name. What I find inspiring are the people who have struggled against the odds and remained true to themselves. In modern times,Udham Singh, a freedom fighter against the British is one, so are Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. There are so many of these people in  history.

BLD: What are you most passionate/happiest about?
MSG: I get passionate about pursuing the fight against inequality which is rooted in Sikh philosophy. What makes me the happiest is seeing my children achieving their potential.

BLD: What are your dislikes?
MSG: In a professional context, people standing on soapboxes indulging in political posturing, pretending to be what they are not. There are not so many people who have values and behave in the same manner. The first Sikh guru said (and I am paraphrasing here): “Truth is the highest virtue but higher still is truthful living.” 

BLD: What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
MSG: Probably too many to recall! If you want one – it was my very first case at Tower Bridge Magistrates’ Court. I was so nervous I locked myself into the lavatory until it was absolutely necessary as there was a particularly aggressive stipendiary magistrate I was appearing before.

BLD: Tell us your professional high point(s).
MSG: Apart from the cases that one does which have an affect on the law, it is a memory from a small case from the start of my career which has stuck with me. I was representing a young Anglo-Indian lesbian who had recently lost her partner and went into a shop and took plimsolls. She pleaded guilty and was given a custodial sentence. I was so angry, I told the magistrates to go out and think again and come up with a correct decision. They were so shell-shocked that they did go out and came back to hand down a suspended sentence. It does show that if you stand up for what is right, you may look foolish but get a result.

BLD: What was the most famous/interesting case(s) you have handled to date?
MSG: The Belmarsh indefinite detention case, the control order case, the certificate of approval case and the Darfuri case. They are all very interesting and have different things about them which make them memorable.

BLD: What would you say to those who said you seem more interested in taking on the cases of terrorists and similar people?
MSG:  It is important to recognise that what we are doing is protecting certain values and principles. If this is not protected for the most unpalatable people in society, then it will not be protected for others.

BLD: Any professional regrets?
MSG:  Regret that the legal system has taken so much time to begin to become more inclusive.

BLD: If you could rule the world for a day what would you change/do?
MSG:  In a day I could probably do a heck of a lot! One thing I would do is pass decrees which protect individuals in international law and strengthen the application of  states’ duties to protect individuals. The international community marginalises the individual and that is why we have situations like Guantanamo Bay.