When Counsel magazine asked me to talk about my practice and my representation of Gypsies and Travellers I began thinking back to when I first started at the Bar and to reflect both on how fortunate I have been throughout my career and on how the way in which we operate as barristers has changed.

The early days

I was called in 1987 and was fortunate to be given a pupillage at 10/11 Gray’s Inn Square. At that time pupillage was a somewhat different experience. There were no checklists to complete and my most important job in the first six months of my pupillage was to buy rounds of drinks at my pupil master’s expense for his fellow tenants.

It was whilst I was in the second six months of my pupillage that I was sent to represent the Stanley family at Beaconsfield Magistrates’ Court. The Stanleys were a local Romani Gypsy family. They had bought a piece of land and developed it as a caravan site for themselves without planning permission. Enforcement action had been taken and they were being prosecuted for breach of planning control. I was sent down to apply for legal aid and seek an adjournment, an application which I remember upset not just the prosecutor but also the clerk of the Court.

A passion is lit

It was my first encounter with Romani Gypsies and I have to admit that at that time I had little real understanding of their lifestyle or of the difficulties that they face trying to live in accordance with their traditional way of life in our modern day society. Nevertheless I got on very well with the family, got the adjournment and went on to represent other families who had instructed the same solicitors. It was not long before I learned of all the legislation which prevents Gypsies and Travellers from travelling with their caravans and the opposition they encounter when seeking planning permission for their caravan sites, which they need both as a winter base and also to ensure that their families are able to access healthcare and that their children can attend school.

Most shocking was my discovery that infant mortality within the Gypsy and Traveller community is twice the national average, that their life expectancy is at least 10 years less than that of members of the settled community, and that their children have the lowest level of attendance and attainment of the ethnic minorities living in the UK. Gypsies and Travellers continue to experience overt discrimination and the prejudice they suffer is exacerbated by their negative and stereotyped portrait in the media. Having discovered the true extent of the inequalities suffered by Gypsies and Travellers at a relatively early stage in my career, I became a passionate defender of their rights and resolved to do my best to assist them in the future.

Developing the practice...

I stayed at 10/11 Gray’s Inn Square for a very enjoyable 10 years and with the help of my colleagues, clerks and solicitors kept myself very busy with a mixed criminal and general common law practice. However, as time went on I found that my work for Gypsies and Travellers occupied an increasing percentage of my practice and that it was becoming more and more difficult to keep both my criminal and my civil solicitors happy as a consequence.

In 1997 I joined 1 Pump Court. It was whilst there that I decided to stop taking on criminal cases and concentrate on representing Gypsies and Travellers. Both my clerks at 1 Pump Court and the solicitors that instructed me at the time deserve my thanks for helping me make the transition.

Sadly, some of those solicitors are no longer with us. I have particularly fond memories of Peter Kingshill, a solicitor who had represented Gypsies and Travellers for many years. When I first met Peter he was already beyond retirement age and somewhat deaf. Peter practised from his offices in 6 Gray’s Inn Square and was kind enough to send me instructions on a regular basis. This was in the days before emails and I remember often running round to his panelled offices with urgent paperwork that I had drafted and then having to shout at Peter to make myself understood.

Whilst at 1 Pump Court I was first instructed by Chris Johnson, a partner at Community Law Partnership, a firm in Birmingham which specialises in providing advice and assistance to Gypsies and Travellers. Chris is the hardest working lawyer I know and I am continually amazed and inspired by his commitment to legal aid work and promotion of the rights of Gypsies and Travellers. Indeed, if anyone deserves a LALY award it is him.

Chris Johnson and I began presenting training sessions for the Legal Action Group and Shelter on the subject of Gypsy and Traveller law. We also managed to persuade the Legal Action Group and the Commission for Racial Equality to fund the publication of a textbook. The first edition of our book Gypsy and Traveller Law was published in 2004, the second in 2007 and we hope to publish the third edition later this year, once all the key legislative and policy changes have been made by the Coalition Government.

At about the same time I began assisting a number of NGOs that worked with Gypsies and Travellers to campaign for changes to law and policy which affected their ability to live in accordance with their traditional way of life. The work done by these NGOs is truly magnificent. It is vital that the work continues if we are to tackle the discrimination that Gypsies and Travellers face, be able to  provide them with the accommodation that they need and if there is to be any real improvement in their health and the educational achievements of their children.

...at home and abroad

In 2004 I moved to 2 Garden Court, now Garden Court Chambers. By that stage my practice had changed beyond recognition and I was excited to be joining fellow practitioners David Watkinson and Stephen Cottle, who also act for Gypsies and Travellers.

I also began working with the Council of Europe, presenting training seminars on the European Convention on Human Rights and on Roma rights. My training work has taken me to Moscow, Yerevan, Tbilisi, Athens, Luxembourg and Strasbourg and led to work with the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency in Vienna and other international human rights organisations. I was subsequently invited to edit the Council of Europe’s handbook for lawyers entitled Ensuring access to rights for Roma and Travellers. The role of the European Court of Human Rights. The first edition was published in 2009 and the second edition should be published shortly.

Back in the UK I was instructed on a number of relatively high profile cases, including a challenge to the decision taken by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to sanction the compulsory purchase of two sites occupied by Gypsies and Travellers so that the land could be used to house the Olympic Village and the hockey stadium in circumstances where the site occupants had not been offered any alternative sites. Though the challenge failed I am pleased to be able to report that alternative sites were eventually found and that the development of the Olympic site went ahead as planned.

Dale Farm

Then, last year, I was instructed in the Dale Farm case and represented a number of Irish Travellers who were seeking judicial review of a decision taken by the local authority to evict them from their land because they had no planning permission to develop their pitches for residential use. The Travellers pointed to the fact that they had nowhere else to go, to the impact that it would have upon the health of the elderly and sick members of their community and to the disruption that eviction would cause to the education of more than 100 children living on the site, and sought a stay of the eviction until an alternative site could be found for them. Unfortunately, the challenge failed and the ensuing eviction, which was spearheaded by police in riot gear, received worldwide media attention. 

Nevertheless, I hope some good will come out of the Dale Farm case and that the Coalition Government will realise that it makes no sense to spend vast sums of money evicting Gypsies and Travellers from unauthorised sites when they have nowhere else to station their caravans. The Government should grasp the nettle and make adequate provision an urgent priority. It was not without good cause that Vaclav Havel said, ‘The Gypsies are a litmus test, not of democracy, but of civil society’ and it is high time that our Government recognises that it should make a concerted effort to address the needs of Gypsies and Travellers in the UK.

Legal aid – and the future

Whilst real progress may be made in the future, I don’t suppose I will be able to hang up my wig and gown just yet. I remain committed to the cause of promoting and protecting the rights of Gypsies and Travellers and hope that other members of the Bar will follow suit. Whether they will be able to do so is likely to depend on the extent of the cuts to Legal Aid that the Government intends making and the impact of those cuts on the solicitors that have the necessary experience and expertise to advise and assist Gypsies and Travellers. The Legal Aid Bill is currently being considered by Parliament and the sad fact is that the reduction in the scope of civil Legal Aid that it proposes is bound to limit the ability of those most vulnerable members of our society to access justice. Those opposed to the proposed cuts have presented a formidable case. I only hope they win the day.

Marc Willers
Garden Court Chambers