The day of one of the most significant Buddhist festivals commemorating the descent of Buddha from heaven back to earth to serve all sentient beings was an appropriate moment to offer prayers for our friend David Burgess, who died last October.
David's death on October 25 last year made front-page news due to the circumstances -- he fell under a train at King's Cross tube station in London and a murder charge has followed. But it is a testimony to him that even the most graphic tabloid coverage also paid tribute to his trail-blazing legal work that literally saved lives.
David, known as the finest immigration lawyer of his generation, crossed boundaries in his personal as well as professional life. His family and friends had known for some time of his identity too as a woman, Sonia. Many came to know about it through news coverage of his death. David was less well-known for his work representing transsexual clients, but he had taken three major cases to the European Court of Human Rights, seeking to win full legal recognition of their changed gender status.
David, who lived in London and was 63 when he died, joined the legal profession at a time when the status and plight of refugees was receiving little attention. Lawyers who worked with David say that he saved lives not only through his individual casework, but also through the case law he established.
His well-deserved reputation for tenacity, thoroughness and sheer grit emerged from a deep sense of compassion for others' suffering. As the Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture has observed, he was the most gentle and humble person one could hope to meet -- but fierce as a tiger when faced with injustice and cruelty. Chris Randall, a solicitor and a colleague for 17 years, who was trained by David, said: "David was the touchstone and the inspiration for a whole generation of legal aid lawyers. So many of us, when working on a difficult case, will continue to think what would David have done in this particular situation? But perhaps more importantly, would he have stopped here, or gone further?"
In 1997 David once wrote about the devastating consequences of malpractice:
"In the field of asylum work it is a truth known to practitioners that legal representation can kill."
In 1996, David acted for Karamjit Singh Chahal, an alleged Sikh militant facing deportation to India. In a landmark ruling, the European Court of Human Rights stated that the UK could not return Chahal to India in reliance on diplomatic assurances against torture from New Delhi, no matter what crimes he was suspected of or his status in the UK. Chahal v. The UK was the first articulation of the prohibition on returns to risk of torture and was later instrumental in preventing the deportation of terrorist suspects rounded up after 9/11.
In what was described as the most significant constitutional case for more than 200 years, David caused the then Conservative home secretary, Kenneth Baker, to be found in contempt of court for failing to stop the deportation of "M", a Zairean asylum seeker. David took on this case on the day of "M"' deportation after another immigration firm had failed to prevent it. Half an hour before he was due to be flown out of the country, he filed a fresh asylum application. The court understood there was an undertaking to stay deportation, but the plane took off. David phoned the judge at home at midnight, and the judge ordered "M"'s return. David didn't stop there. He was outraged at the Home Secretary's failure to comply with the judge's order, and took the case to the House of Lords, who ruled against the government, and stated that Kenneth Baker had to pay costs.
David was unstinting in his ability to marshal the facts and discover the truth -- to the extent of traveling to countries where individuals had endured persecution in order to document this. In 1987, David defended a group of 52 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers who were refused entry when they arrived at the UK border. David intervened to stop the deportation, applying for a judicial review of the decision to reject the asylum claim, which he won in the court of appeal, but lost in the House of Lords. David then traveled to Sri Lanka together with a colleague where they gathered evidence of the maltreatment the Tamils had suffered since their return, and as a result the 52 were accepted as refugees and allowed to enter the UK.
David had a particular connection and commitment to Tibet, initially through his former wife, a Tibetan whom he met seven years earlier when she sought immigration advice. David and his wife had a son and a daughter, and in 1987, they adopted his wife's seven-year old niece.
While acting for a number of Tibetan asylum claimants, David traveled to Dharamsala, where he interviewed former Tibetan political prisoners. A Dutch researcher introduced David to a former political prisoner who had recently escaped from Tibet. As monsoon clouds rumbled over the foothills of the Himalayas, David interviewed a former prisoner, a monk detained and tortured after posting a poem about his aspirations for Tibet on the wall of his monastery. David listened and asked detailed questions in order to unravel and understand the abuses that led to his Tibetan clients ultimately seeking sanctuary in the UK.
In November, 1991, David received an urgent call about the arrival of a Tibetan official in London as part of an official Chinese government delegation. The official had decided to defect and there were 15 minutes left before the official's absence would be noticed by his embassy. Not only did David take on the case, but he also offered sanctuary in his family home for the Tibetan, where he stayed for some time and became a lifelong friend.
During the then Chinese President's state visit to the UK in October, 1999, it was David's suggestion to apply for a judicial review of the Metropolitan Police's operational decisions, which included confiscating flags and banners from peaceful protestors in the Mall, and blocking demonstrators from the view of the Chinese President with white vans. A statement was secured, made to the High Court, that the police had acted unlawfully.
After David and his wife separated, and the legal firm Winstanley Burgess folded, David traveled to Tibet in 2006 to fulfill a long-held dream of learning Tibetan. He was not well during his stay in Lhasa -- he suffered from a painful spine condition, and the altitude was difficult for him to cope with. But he was deeply moved by his time there, particularly when setting foot into the sacred Jokhang temple for the first time. He constantly sought practical ways of helping to improve the lives of Tibetans in Tibet, as well as those who managed to reach exile.
Even though he worked from early in the morning until late at night, which he acknowledged took its toll on his family, David still gave time to the Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture and to friends who needed him. When I told him about a deportation I had witnessed of a Chinese man, sitting behind me on a flight to Beijing between two burly bodyguards, and screaming as if his life were about to end (as it may have been), I realized that this was the level of pain David witnessed almost daily.
His Tibetan friends did not judge his personal life. The elderly Tibetan who had defected in 1991, represented by David, said upon hearing the news:
"It is the person he was, whichever gender he chose to be, who will live on in my heart and the hearts of others. He was a person of justice and integrity. I will try to turn my grief into strength by trying to be like him."
David/Sonia Burgess, lawyer, born 25 September 1947; died 25 October 2010