S. Chelvan

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“It’s a very dangerous world to be gay in” are the words of S Chelvan, a powerhouse in representing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) people fleeing homophobic or transphobic persecution. The barrister at No 5 Chambers is passionate about his belief, cause and clients and set out in his career to be “the mouthpiece for those who know the words but have no voice”.  

He regularly acts as advocate on asylum and immigration matters and has helped spearhead vital landmark LGBTI asylum cases - from the First-tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber) up to the Supreme Court and European Courts. His practice spans the entire spectrum of immigration, asylum and nationality law as well as the broader fields of civil liberties and human rights and public law, specifically judicial reviews. His national and international work includes litigation and advisory work with practitioners, academics, the judiciary, the UNHCR, NGOs, the media, parliaments and governments.

Chelvan, who was born in 1974 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, came to the UK with his family when he was four.  He is a Ceylonese Tamil and openly gay, with an international reputation as an expert in claims involving sexual or gender identity from LGBTI clients.

In recent years, he has caused ground-breaking shifts on major policies. His DSSH model (Difference, Stigma, Shame and Harm) provides a humane method of proving an LGBTI asylum claim, and is endorsed by the UNHCR and adopted by New Zealand, Sweden, Finland and the UK.  In devising the DSSH model, Chelvan said he had taken the opportunity to look at the current thinking of international governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which initially focused on how to prove that an asylum seeker may be lesbian or gay by developing a questionnaire. He believed their approach was not just inappropriate, but fundamentally wrong because it encouraged individuals to look at means to prove their sexuality which, in some cases, was inhuman and degrading. He therefore devised the DSSH – moving the focus of attention away from sex and, instead, looking at the issue of sexual or gender identity outside the bedroom, which is at the core of the issue.

In 2013, Chelvan delivered the 11th Stonewall Lecture at the Law Society – entitled From Silence to Safety: Protecting the Gay Refugee? at the Law Society. The contents of the lecture received international media attention, with the Chancellor of the High Court remarking that Chelvan is “[A] master of his subject. Very informative, humorous, personal, inspiring and very thought provoking”.

The year 2013 also saw Chelvan being appointed to the Preferred Panel List of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, and winning the asylum appeals of all five members of the Cameroonian Olympic boxing team, who feared persecution on political opinion grounds due to their defection at the time from the London 2012 Olympics. 

After earning the prestigious title of Legal Aid Barrister of the Year 2014 at the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards (LALY) for his work in immigration and asylum, Chelvan summed up why he is an advocate for the vulnerable caught up in the legal system: “We are dealing with saving people’s lives.” For him, asylum law was a calling, even if other branches of the legal profession would have been more lucrative.

In 2015, Chelvan featured as the Human Rights Lawyer in the “I am an Immigrant” national poster campaign for the General Election, run by the Movement Against Xenophobia and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

Chelvan read Politics and Law and obtained a first-class honours degree from the University of Southampton. He was called to the Bar (Inner Temple) in 1999, having been awarded a Major Scholarship.  He obtained his Master of Laws from Harvard Law School, where he was a Kennedy Memorial Trust Scholar (UK equivalent to Rhodes) and is due to complete a PhD in Asylum Law at King’s College London.

Chambers and Partners UK (2015) states he is: “Very intelligent, hard-working, and imaginative in his approach to cases" and that “he has probably become the leading practitioner in the UK for political asylum claims on sexuality”. Legal 500 (2014) says that he is “committed to forwarding the rights of migrants”.  

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