John Gillette: Teesside to Zambia

Leaving Teesside Crown Court to take some time off, with no idea that he’d done his last case, this advocate is now in pursuit of an astonishing amount of goodwill and generosity for the Zambezi Sunrise Trust: a day in the life


11 April 2019: it is the rainy season in Zambia, and the 470 vulnerable children of Linda Community School in Livingstone have had to walk to school in torrential rain. Many haven’t made it in today due to a swollen river and broken bridge. Those that have arrived are soaked to the skin and are cold: a contrast to the blistering heat in which they often walk. They assemble in some of the new classrooms that have been built by Zambezi Sunrise, and a large part of the morning is spent distributing dry uniform donations from schools in County Durham and Cambridgeshire.

Through the rain and mud, a battered taxi makes its way towards the school through the unpaved roads of Linda Compound. I greet those that emerge: the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales Lord Burnett, UK Supreme Court Justice Lord Carnwath of Notting Hill, Scotland’s Lord Justice Clerk Lady Dorrian and Richard Atkins QC, Chair of the Bar. They are here for the Commonwealth Lawyers Association conference in Livingstone and have come to visit the new classrooms and see the kitchen, ablution block, library room and office that have been built. We are grateful for their interest (and the encouragement that they have shown since – many of you may have read Richard’s mention of the charity and school in Counsel).

Shortly after they leave, two Zambian government vehicles arrive and another silk from England alights, this time the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Baroness Scotland QC. This is her second visit. Yesterday she opened our latest classroom, which the Commonwealth Lawyers Association has funded. She did so in the presence of the UK High Commissioner, the day after the school choir performed before their President and Chief Justice (one of several) at the conference. Moved by what she had seen of the children, she has returned to spend more time with them. Even by the standards of an ever eventful charitable enterprise, this is an ‘extraordinary’ day in an extraordinary week. The school’s improvised visitors’ book has a remarkable page to prove it.

The Zambezi Sunrise Trust is now just over three years old. It arose out of my wife Joanne and I deciding to spend a month volunteer teaching in Zambia. We thought that was a big commitment of time and had no thought of establishing a charity. As I left Teesside Crown Court to take some time off, I had no idea that I’d done my last case. (It was an ordinary Friday list and I have no recollection of it, not realising at the time it had a particular significance for me.) Having spent a month in schools in Livingstone, however, we felt we couldn’t just walk away and decided to raise some money to help where we could. Before we knew it, I’d found one vocation had been replaced by an energising other. We were able to quickly move on from establishing a charitable trust to meeting the requirements of the Charity Commission and become a registered charity. There has been steady progress ever since, and it now takes up all of my time.

A contrast with life at the Bar has been that advocacy is no longer in an adversarial context, but in pursuit of accessing an astonishing amount of goodwill and generosity. Connections have rapidly been made with a huge number of people and like-minded organisations, with donations from individuals in at least 26 countries and the involvement of seven schools in England. Volunteers from several countries have gone to Zambia specifically to work on Zambezi Sunrise projects.

Some things are similar, however, to criminal practice: a steady stream of appearances before schools, WIs and U3As utilises whatever speaking skills may have been picked up before North Eastern juries (although, unlike juries, they are obviously non captive audiences with the ability to interrupt and ask questions – perhaps Court of Appeal appearances also provided a useful grounding).

The involvement of the Bar in supporting an ongoing fundraiser to build a classroom (of which, more later) is particularly gratifying. The skills that are largely unconsciously picked up in practice at the criminal Bar have proven to be of use to me in any number of situations. Interactions with everyone from Zambian and British government officials to orphaned children and people in the direst of circumstances have all been made easier by a foundation of experience built up in many a conference or court corridor encounter. I doubtless would have baulked at drafting necessary legal and educational documents without years of similar challenges. Project managing the construction of classrooms, or other fundraisers, involves people management skills not so very different to those needed to put together a prosecution or defence – the organising of people with different disciplines towards a clear goal is something that others from outside the law often remark upon but which is something that barristers do every day. You may not realise it, but if you are an advocate reading this, you really do have a lot to offer to charitable organisations that could benefit from your skills and experience. Why not give it a go?

The new classroom that attracted such eminent legal attention is the first real classroom that the children occupying it have ever had. They are children who are selected by the community to attend the school based on their vulnerability (70% have lost at least one parent). Through the good offices of Jonathan Ashley-Norman QC and Colin Nicholls QC, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association agreed to raise the funds to build it from contributions from lawyers around the Commonwealth. It is, in fact, the first half of a two-classroom block. We now have an ongoing fundraiser addressed to the legal professions in the UK to build the second half. At the time of writing, ‘Class Action’ has reached half of the £10,000 target, largely with contributions from individual barristers in London and the North Eastern and Midland Circuits. Chambers have also made generous collective donations, as has the North Eastern Circuit Charity. We would obviously be delighted to receive donations from more barristers throughout England and Wales (and lawyers from elsewhere in the UK) to match their Commonwealth brethren and complete the funding of the ‘legal’ block. Donations can be made at www.goldengiving.com/fundraising/classactionlegalchallenge. If we can do that, we’ll have provided a lot of extraordinary days for some extraordinary children.

John Gillette was called to the Bar in 1990. After pupillage in London he practised at the criminal bar on the North Eastern Circuit. He is a founding trustee of the Zambezi Sunrise Trust.

JOIN THE ‘CLASS ACTION’: You can find out more about the Zambezi Sunrise Trust and its projects at www.zambezisunrisetrust.co.uk . The ‘News’ section has updates on the progress of the ‘Class Action’ fundraiser, donations to which can be made through www.goldengiving.com/fundraising/classactionlegalchallenge. 100% of any sums received will fund the construction of the classroom. The charity also has a Facebook page. John Gillette can be contacted at johncgillette@hotmail.com and welcomes enquiries about Zambezi Sunrise.

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John Gillette

John Gillette was called to the Bar in 1990. After pupillage in London he practised at the criminal bar on the North Eastern Circuit. He is a founding trustee of the Zambezi Sunrise Trust.