I regret the difficulties I brought to friends & family, but I don’t regret the idealism

Lawyers are often accused of seeing pro bono work as little more than a PR exercise. Makbool Javaid advocates a different approach – even though he believes it was his own commitment to pro bono which led to his being accused of being an extremist sympathiser by the tabloid press

Throughout my career, I have held to the belief that pro bono work should target those most in need and not simply those who can make lawyers look and feel good. I have paid a heavy price for adhering to this principle, but I believe it is the only ethical stance our profession can take.

It’s no surprise given my background and professional practice that I am passionate about greater diversity in the profession. My father was a head teacher in Kenya before he set down roots in the Black Country and became a bus conductor. After grammar school, I went to the London School of Economics, and I owe my success to the fact that I was one of the last students to receive a local authority grant, right up until my professional exams.

I have subsequently operated at the highest tiers of the profession, an equity partner at a global law firm and now at one of the leading law firms in the country, Simons Muirhead & Burton. I have been involved in landmark cases that have shaped the law of the land. I have worked with some of the best lawyers of my generation – but my privileged position only highlights the fact that there is still a lack of diversity at the most senior levels of our profession.

One constant throughout my career is my belief that the law is the most powerful tool for bringing about social change.

At university, my tutors advocated change through social activism and it was at the core of many LSE programmes. Outside the lecture halls, we drew on a history of being in the vanguard of many political campaigns and in particular the anti-apartheid struggle. The restructuring of the economy under Thatcher was well under way and there were a wide range of issues to take up as the nation was divided. From the miners’ strike to student cuts and all international causes in between, we as privileged students, were expected to take part in the debates of the day. It perplexed the overseas students who did not understand the British mistrust of the big state. While my best friend at the time, an Ivy League American considered which Wall Street firm he liked best, I was on the streets campaigning against apartheid.

When I began my legal career, I was drawn to the great pioneering law firms and learnt my trade from the likes of Sir Geoffrey Bindman, and entered a world where firms were at the centre of the big social issues of the day.

My touchstone then, and now, are the principles set out in Tom Bingham’s celebrated book The Rule of Law, which should be essential reading for all lawyers and active citizens. It sets out the importance of legal norms in modern society and I have always believed that this to be a fundamental requirement in any civilised society. In my opinion lawyers are under a moral duty to stick up for the basic rights of even the most unpopular and distasteful causes, and should not just see pro bono work as an opportunity for generating good publicity.

I have never believed in restricting my pro bono work to safe and popular causes – which is what too many firms seem to do. The gaps that have opened in our legal system have to be filled and lawyers must take up the challenge and not be afraid to protect civil liberties. This is where pro bono work for those in need comes in. It should target the protection of basic rights, even if the cause is unpopular or regarded as distasteful by many in society. In my view, it is incumbent on lawyers to do so in order to protect the essential fabric of what makes British society the most tolerant and fair in the modern age.

My own experience of being painted as an extremist stems from my attempts to give pro bono assistance, nearly two decades ago, to what was then a small, inconsequential group of Muslim radicals. The distorted way my actions have been portrayed since is instructive as to how things can go wrong, but does not deter me from pursuing this ideal. Lawyers will make blunders but we should not shy away from safeguarding the rights of the vilified because their basic rights are part of a democratic consensus that protects all of us.

I was a young, idealistic solicitor when I was first contacted in 1990 by Omar Bakri Mohammed. He had been accused of calling for the assassination of then prime minister John Major and wanted defamation advice. He didn’t have any money, so I advised him pro bono, as I have done for many people in similar situations both before and since. At the time, I saw the media attacks on Bakri as part of the growing anti-Muslim sentiment that I witnessed with alarm after the first Gulf war.

I had no further contact with Bakri until 1995, by which time I was at the Commission for Racial Equality and chair of the Society of Black Lawyers. SBL specialised in challenging the established order and thanks to two formidable individuals at the helm of the Bar Council and Law Society, we were able to open up entry into the profession. These anti-racist measures have since created a legal profession that is far more meritocratic and diverse, ushering in an age where protecting the interests of minorities is now the norm rather than the exception. Not long after that, an old friend of mine was appointed as the first openly gay High Court judge.

Bakri went on to become the head of Al-Muhajiroun, a group which many years later gained such infamy, that it is now proscribed under anti-terror laws. However, during the time when I had contact with Bakri, Al-Muhajiroun promoted itself as an Islamic educational and social group. The offensive publicity stunts for which the group subsequently became known – poppy burning, gatecrashing army memorial parades (all of which I entirely condemn) – came much later. In those days, I regarded Bakri as a self-publicist – a view which will be shared by anyone who has watched journalist Jon Ronson’s 1997 mocking documentary about him, Tottenham Ayatollah.

Even though I didn’t take Bakri himself seriously, it was part of my role as a CRE lawyer and chair of SBL to build contacts with disadvantaged communities and I saw the victimisation that he complained of as being driven by institutional racism. It was SBL’s practice to provide pro bono legal assistance as legal observers and via a helpline to disadvantaged groups from ethnic minority communities.

Al-Muhajiroun was one of several groups that I supported in this way.

Unbeknown to me, on occasion during this period, Al-Muhajiroun took my name in vain on some of its publicity material – citing me as supporting its extreme – and ludicrous – demands. I never saw these press releases, most of which would have been destined for the rubbish bins of Fleet Street, in any event, as the group was largely ignored by the media as too silly to bother with.

In summer 1997, I attended a rally in Trafalgar Square, as a pro bono legal observer, at which I ended up giving an impromptu speech, which I now regret. Although not out of keeping with the prevailing anti-colonialism rhetoric of the time, some of the language I used and the tone of the speech was a mistake for which I have apologised repeatedly.

None of this is new. My explanation was made clear in 1998 after some newspapers libellously reported that I was a supporter of Osama bin Laden, citing my dealings with Al-Muhajiroun. Along with most of the rest of the world pre-9/11, I had never even heard of bin Laden at that stage and I successfully sued five national newspapers, settling out of court with apologies and retractions.

By then, it had become clear to me that Al-Muhajiroun’s agenda had changed and it was no longer the well-intentioned group I believed it to be, so I broke off all contact from that point onwards.

I felt I had learned a hard lesson, but thought the issue was behind me.

However, this foolish and naïve episode in my life 20 years ago was dredged up again recently as a way of smearing by association Labour’s London mayoral candidate, Sadiq Khan, my ex-brother in law whom I have not seen in 10 years.

I regret the difficulties I have brought to my colleagues, friends, and family. I have of course apologised on more than one occasion but I do not regret the idealism and commitment to the rule of law and basic rights for all that has driven me throughout my career. Perhaps, if more lawyers were prepared to give up their time to defend the rights of unpopular causes, in the interests of protecting the rule of law, actions like mine would be less open to misinterpretation and misunderstanding.
Read Legal Voice comment editor Fiona Bawdon’s interview with Makbool Javaid here

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