Beware of crocodiles

From the Commonwealth Law Association conference in Zambia, where inspiration and rule-of-law reminders abound


I am writing this column in a hotel room in Livingstone, Zambia, where I am attending the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA) Conference. Fortunately for Zambia, but not for me, the rainy season has returned and as I look out of my window at the torrential rain, my view of the Zambezi River is partially blocked by a large sign which warns ‘Please Beware of Crocodiles’. I am not sure if this is always there, or whether it has been put there specially for me. Whatever, it strikes me as a rather useful warning for the remaining nine months or so of my term and is now my screensaver!

This is not a jolly; I have been promoting the Bar and I was a speaker in the session ‘The anatomy of a trial – from opening to closing statements’. The section on the use of technology in our courts was of interest to many of the delegates, although I warned them that if they do invest in technology, that investment must be considerable. Court technology ‘on the cheap’ more often than not turns out not to be ‘technology’ at all. I wish our Commonwealth colleagues well and hope they learn lessons from our experience.

The conference theme is ‘The Rule of Law in Retreat? Challenges for the Modern Commonwealth’. I must confess to not having given the rule of law much thought over the years that I plied my trade on the Midland Circuit. When driving to court I was more likely to have been thinking about the hopelessness of my client’s defence. But for many of our colleagues in other jurisdictions the rule of law is something they think about on a daily basis. Together with the Bar Human Rights Committee I recently wrote a letter to President Erdogan about the persecution of lawyers in Turkey and to our Foreign Secretary asking him to make representations to the leadership of Iran where lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was recently sentenced to 148 lashes and 38 years’ imprisonment. Around the world lawyers are persecuted simply for doing their jobs and I shall try never again to take the rule of law for granted.

The Crown Prosecution Service review of fees is getting under way. The Bar Council together with representatives from the Criminal Bar Association, Young Bar and Circuits will be seeking to obtain a substantial increase in prosecution fees as we are also currently seeking in relation to defence fees. No increase in prosecution fees since 2001 and a cut in 2012 is surely indefensible? Whilst considering the terrible state of the fees it occurred to me that there is a rule of law issue here. If fees are so low that good people do not prosecute or leave the criminal Bar then that has the potential for undermining the rule of law. It may not be as overt as the persecution of lawyers, but it must affect the quality of those practising in crime. I hope that we have good news for the Bar later this year about prosecution fees and next year in relation to defence fees. I promise you that I will try my best.

I am now a quarter of a way through my term. One of the real delights of this job is the quality of the people I meet and work with. Whilst here in Zambia I had the privilege of meeting John Gillette who was called to the Bar in 1990 and practised from Middlesborough Chambers. Four years ago, together with his wife Joanne, he took a month off to do some volunteer teaching in Livingstone, Zambia. As a result of their experiences they set up a UK registered charity, the Zambezi Sunrise Trust (ZST). It enabled them to set up a pre-school for 30 children, a homework club, and has provided support for another primary school. Their main project, however, is the Linda Community School, which I visited, and which provides education for 470 children selected by the community on the basis of vulnerability. Seventy per cent of the children who attend the school have lost at least one parent. The school was set up by Headmistress, Cathy Chilambe 20 years ago and operated from temporary and inadequate accommodation. ZST stepped in to help. The local government provided land and at the end of 2017 construction of the first permanent class room began. The project nearly foundered because of an outbreak of cholera in 2018, but ZST provided funding for a toilet and ablution block which saved the school. Since then three classrooms, a library room and a kitchen have been built – funded by ZST. A fourth classroom, funded by the CLA, opened during the conference. It is the first half of a two-classroom block; the second half of which requires funding. The other problem the school faces is that many pupils walk for over an hour to get there and have to use a 15-metre bridge, which collapsed some years ago. In the dry season this is not a problem but in the rainy season it prevents them from getting to school. Last year one parent was killed by a crocodile as he tried to get his child across the river.

If anyone has any links to a friendly bridge builder – can the construction Bar help? – who could assist please put them in touch with John: johncgillette@hotmail.com. Have a look at the ZST website: www.zambezisunrisetrust.co.uk. Perhaps your chambers might think about helping to fundraise for a new classroom: https://mydonate.bt.com/events/classaction/492295. John now devotes his time full-time to the charity. He is obviously a loss to the Bar, but an inspiration to us all. 

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Richard Atkins QC

Richard Atkins QC, Chair of the Bar