Jelia Sane


What do you as a tenant at Doughty Street Chambers?

I have a fairly broad practice in public international law; immigration and asylum; crime and related aspects of public law. 

Why did you choose those specific areas?

I have always had a strong interest in public international law. I did an LLM in the subject at University College London, and worked for about four years in the field before coming back to the UK and qualifying as a barrister in 2013. I always knew that I wanted international law to be a big part of my practice, which is the primary reason why I applied to Doughty Street for pupillage.

I also enjoyed domestic criminal law as an undergraduate, but it’s not an area I was really exposed to until I started pupillage. My first supervisor in Chambers was a criminal barrister and as a second-six pupil 'on my feet' I mostly did criminal cases. There is a lot of work for juniors in crime, so it’s a great way to cut your teeth and develop your advocacy skills. Criminal law and procedure is legally very interesting and often you are trying to help very vulnerable individuals, such as young people or individuals with mental health issues, which is deeply rewarding.

Immigration and asylum law is another area that I was interested in but did not know much about before starting pupillage. I did a lot of work with victims of displacement in Colombia, which sparked my interest in migration issues. I then did an immigration 'seat' during my pupillage and loved it, so decided that this was an area that I also wanted to pursue. I like the fact that it often has an international element. For example, when you are preparing an asylum appeal, you have to learn about the political and human rights situation in your client’s country of origin because you have to show a risk of persecution if they are returned. So you need to analyse reports from the UN or NGOs like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. That’s an aspect of the work that I really enjoy.

Can you tell us a bit more about pupillage, as it's quite specific to the United Kingdom law system?

A pupillage is 12 months of 'on the job' training that is required in order to be able to practise as a barrister. Usually you will spend the 12 months within a set of Chambers.

Different Chambers have different processes, but most sets split the year into two six-month periods. Your first six months are non-practising, meaning that you are doing paperwork for your supervisor and other members of Chambers. The second six months are 'on your feet', in court, doing your own cases. 

Within those 12 months you rotate between different supervisors. I had three supervisors during the course of the year, who were specialised in crime, immigration and asylum, and international law respectively. You learn by immersing yourself in their practice. For example, I attended court with my first supervisor, I would go with him to conferences with lay clients and with solicitors, or I'd do some paperwork for him. By observing him I learnt about the job of an advocate. I also did a lot of written work for other members of Chambers, which was a great way of developing my research and drafting skills.

Your second six months, you're still with a supervisor, working on their cases. At the same time, you are 'on your feet', for the most part in the criminal courts. You start doing your own casework and representing your own clients in court. I did lots of small trials, for example, in the Magistrates’ Courts. I did lots of preliminary hearings, bail hearings and sentencing hearings on more serious cases in the Crown Court. It’s a bit daunting at first, but really enjoyable and a great way to enhance your oral advocacy skills.

At the end of your pupillage you apply either for a tenancy or, in our Chambers, a fixed term tenancy. The application process includes an oral advocacy assessment, a written assessment and an interview before a panel of barristers.

It’s a very tough year and there’s a lot of pressure because you are constantly being evaluated, but it’s an incredible and invaluable learning experience.

Is there any particular case you're proud of having worked on since joining Doughty Street?

One of the great things about being here is that there are so many amazing cases that come into Chambers. Even as junior, you can get exposed to some of the high-profile work undertaken by the more senior members of Chambers. For example, I did some work on the case of the Al Jazeera journalists detained in Egypt last year and the De Menezes case before the European Court of Human Rights, amongst others.

The case that I am the most proud of to date is a judicial review claim, which was heard by the Upper Tribunal in January of this year. I was part of a team of five barristers representing seven applicants: three unaccompanied Syrian children and the adult brother of one of them who was very vulnerable, who were living in horrific conditions in the 'Jungle' camp in Calais, and their UK based siblings. The claim was based on the fact that, under the Dublin III Regulation, our clients in Calais had the right to be transferred by the French authorities to the United Kingdom to be reunited with their families and have their asylum claims determined by the UK. The issue was that in Calais, the Dublin system wasn’t working effectively at the time. People in the camp didn't know about the procedure, had very little access to information and legal advice and so had no real way of accessing their rights. We argued that in the circumstances, for the UK to insist that our clients have recourse to a procedure that wasn’t working constituted a disproportionate interference with their right to family life under Article 8 European Convention on Human Rights. This was because our clients were unaccompanied children and therefore particularly vulnerable, were already suffering from multiple traumas due to what they had witnessed in Syria and during the course of their perilous journey across Europe to Calais, and because of the conditions in the camp. They needed to be reunited with their siblings who could look after them.

We succeeded and the UK was ordered to admit them into the country. They came the day after the hearing. It was incredible.

Had you met them?

Yes, we went to the Jungle. A big part of the work was gathering information and evidence about the conditions in the camp and also the French asylum system. We needed to understand what was happening in France and why things weren't working. So we went out there and we met with the children and some French lawyers and NGOs working on the ground.

The first time I went was incredibly difficult, on a personal level. And I say this as someone who is West African, who has done detention work in Colombia, and has lived and worked in Cambodia. I have seen poverty and suffering, I have lived in challenging field environments. But there is something truly heart-breaking and completely absurd about taking the Eurostar, from London, to go to a refugee camp. I have never seen conditions like it, in fact the conditions in the Jungle are worse than the ones in most refugee camps because it’s not run by UNHCR, so there’s been little implementation of the basic humanitarian standards you would find in other places. There are some amazing volunteers doing what they can, but really the conditions are terrible. It’s unsanitary, it’s in northern France so it’s freezing cold, and people are living in tents, with not enough water or food, and inadequate access to healthcare. There’s trafficking and prostitution in the camp, not to mention police brutality. And you have to remember that by the time they have arrived in Calais, these people are at the end of a long and arduous journey across Europe, having fled war and violence in their own countries. What you see are families and children living in a state-sanctioned slum. That’s why it’s so hard and impossible to comprehend, because it’s happening in Western Europe, in a country that plainly has the resources to provide decent shelter, but has failed to do so.

How do you end up on a case like this?

We were instructed by two firms of solicitors to represent the different clients. The way we found them was through working with the organisation Citizens UK. They had been working in the Jungle for a while and have identified people with connections to the UK.

How do you get your practice known, as a new lawyer?

That's quite difficult. I do it in a number of ways. Because you're self-employed, it's really important to get your name out there. In addition to doing good work, it means attending conferences, attending seminars, writing articles so that solicitors recognise your name. Once you have a relationship with a solicitor it's just about maintaining that relationship and doing what you can to keep them happy.

Within the international sphere, you can get known through publishing articles, through contacting NGOs to do consultancy work. You have to be extremely proactive, because a practice is not going to be handed to you. That's definitely something that you need to work at.

What did you learn during your pupillage?

When you do crime, it is very common to get the case papers the evening before. So you learn how to work quickly and efficiently because often you won’t have as much time as you would like to prepare. Once you get to court, things can be very unpredictable. It never goes how you think it will go, so you have to be able to think on your feet and to stay calm.

I have also learnt a lot about client care. Some clients can be very difficult, so you need to be able to manage their expectations and give them robust advice, even though it’s not what they want to hear. Others are very vulnerable, or scared because they have never been to the criminal courts before. Part of my job is to advise them sensitively and reassure them as best I can.

Finally, you learn how to juggle and prioritise your caseload, and how to survive on very little sleep!

What was your post grad in international law at University College London like?

It was fantastic. I studied for the LLM right after finishing my undergraduate degree. I specialised in international environmental law, international criminal law and the law of armed conflict and was taught by real leaders in those fields such as Philippe Sands QC and Catherine Redgwell. My dissertation was on the protection of the environment during international armed conflicts. It was an extremely interesting year. My classmates were from all over the world and most of them were mid-career professionals, including diplomats, NGO workers, people who worked for the UN etc. That made for a very stimulating environment and resulted in very rich debates, because people could speak to their experiences. I would do it all over again, in a heartbeat.

You worked in Colombia, before joining Doughty Street.

Yes, I spent seven months as a legal advisor for an NGO called the Political Prisoner Solidarity Committee. It's the oldest human rights organisation in Colombia and was created in the 1970s. At that time there were a lot of politically motivated arrests and prosecutions. The organisation was set up to provide legal representation and assistance to prisoners of conscience.

As a legal advisor, my work was incredibly varied and I was exposed to a broad spectrum of human rights issues facing Colombia today, which was fascinating. Colombia is not as much on the international agenda as it used to be. The Government and the FARC are negotiating a peace agreement in Havana and for many international players, it is about to enter a 'post conflict' phase, meaning that it is receiving less assistance than it used to. But the reality is that there are still a lot of problems. This is a country that has known over 50 years of the most horrific political violence and sky-high levels of impunity. The conflict has had a devastating impact on the civilian population, so a lot of work is going to be required in terms of reconciliation and accountability. And while it is not as bad as it was say 10 years ago, it is still ongoing. Human rights defenders, lawyers, trade unionists, journalists, are still at risk.

In terms of my day-to-day role, I was doing a lot of torture prevention work in prisons. This is a huge problem in Colombia. Part of it is due to conditions - most prisons are overcrowded and often detainees will not have access to clean drinking water or adequate medical care - and part of it is ill-treatment at the hands of prison guards. So I visited prisons all over the country and monitored detention conditions. I also designed a workshop for detainees on torture prevention mechanisms at the international level.

I was also heavily involved in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) programme. Colombia has one of the highest IDPs in the world, around 5 million people or 10% of the population. I was working directly with the communities doing a broad range of work, from reporting on violations, to delivering training programmes for community leaders on human rights standards.

Finally, I did strategic litigation work and advised on cases relating to torture, extra-judicial killings, and enforced disappearances, which were before the Inter-American system and the UN system.

And what did you do in Cambodia?

I did an internship in the Prosecution division of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) back in 2012. Before moving to Cambodia, I had worked at the International Criminal Court, in the Appeals Chamber. I became interested in Cambodia because I wanted to experience a hybrid tribunal.

I was working on Case 002, which was against four high-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It's a huge case that has been divided into smaller mini-trials.

For me, Cambodia was a mixed experience. On the one hand, it was a real privilege, for a young lawyer starting out, to be involved in such a historical trial and to be in the country where the events happened. I also completely fell in love with Cambodia - it’s a stunningly beautiful place and I made some wonderful friends there. On the other hand, a myriad of due process issues arise when trying to prosecute individuals in their 80’s, 35 years after the facts. Can you really have a fair trial in those circumstances? Can you test the evidence properly? Or is the court just set up to convict? I still don’t know the answer to those questions, but it really made me think about the role of international criminal tribunals and the fact that they are not always the most appropriate way of dispensing justice.

You also have to consider that just under two million people died from torture, starvation, execution or forced labour during the three years the Khmer Rouge were in power. And yet there are no other accountability mechanisms set up - there’s no truth commission, there aren’t any domestic prosecutions or restorative justice programmes in place.

What would your advice be to a young girl who'd like to become a lawyer?

It really depends on what kind of law you want to practice.

If you want to be an international lawyer, I would advise getting some experience first. International law is incredibly broad, there are many different types of jobs you can do, so it’s good to have an idea before committing to a path. I decided to come home and train because I really wanted to develop my advocacy skills, but a lot of my friends started working as lawyers for international organisations and NGOs. Obviously, the biggest problem is that internships are often unpaid or poorly paid, so a lot of young people can't afford to go to the four corners of the world. But it is possible to get good experience domestically, by volunteering in a law centre for example or with the Red Cross, or doing mini-pupillages if you have an interest in the Bar.

I also think that for international law, languages are essential. I did Law and Hispanic Studies as an undergraduate and am fluent in Spanish. Because of that I have been lucky enough to work in Colombia and in Argentina. I am also a native French speaker and that’s useful, particularly for the Tribunals. In Cambodia for example, I worked in French.

In terms of personal skills, perseverance and the ability to self-motivate are important. I applied for two years before I finally got a pupillage at Doughty Street. It’s equally difficult to get your foot in the door internationally.

Passion, determination, fearlessness and an abundance of optimism are also required in this job. Human rights work is demanding intellectually but also emotionally because you are exposed to abuses of power and to the darker side of humanity. I remember sobbing for hours on the train back to Paris, after the first time I went to Calais. It was brutal. But you have to stay hopeful and believe that you can, in your own small way, try to make a difference, a contribution. And often what inspires me to fight are the clients themselves. In the Jungle for example, there’s a little library called 'Jungle books', there’s a school, a church, a mosque. Even in those desperate and inhumane conditions, people are doing what they can to get organised and survive. That to me is amazing, and it's what keeps me going.

Jelia Sane | Barrister | Doughty Street Chambers

Seven years' experience

CV in brief

Studied Barrister Professional Training Course, Law at City University | LLM in Public International Law at University College London (UCL) | LLB Law with Spanish at The University of Sheffield

Previously worked as Pupil Barrister at Doughty Street Chambers | Legal Advisor at Fundacion Comite de Solidaridad con los Presos Politicos (Colombia) | Litigation Paralegal, Commercial Litigation and Civil Fraud at Peters & Peters | Employment Law Representative at Free Representation Unit | Legal Intern, Office of the International Co-Prosecutor at the ECCC | Legal Consultant at Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (Argentina) | Legal Intern at Centre for Justice and International Law | Legal Intern, Appeals Chamber at the ICC (Netherlands) | Latin America and West Africa programmes Intern, Human Rights Institute at the International Bar Association

Languages spoken English, French and Spanish

Find Jelia online LinkedIn | @Jeliasane | Doughty Street Profile

Inspired by Jelia's career? Here are some related opportunities: Join Doughty Street Chambers | Careers at Peters & Peters | Volunteering and vacancies with Free Representation Unit | Job vacancies at the ECCC | Get involved with the Centre for Justice and International Law | Career opportunities at the ICC | Internships with the Human Rights Institute at the International Bar Association

Exclusive Skype interview by Lucie Goulet, March 24 2016