The last few days have brought a deserved flood of tributes but I had the chance to sit back and think broadly about Nelson Mandela’s life.
Pre-President Mandela, pre-prisoner Mandela – his early career was as a lawyer at the first all-black law firm in South Africa, with his great friend Oliver Tambo.
In an era when apartheid was sadly the prevailing political philosophy, Mandela and Tambo risked an awful lot by providing legal aid and representation to the poorest sections of South African society, who found themselves at the wrong end of an oppressive and discriminatory regime. For example, the lawyers often represented clients who had complaints of Police brutality. They also represented clients charged under apartheid laws.
They continued to do so despite being forced to relocate offices. In about 1960 their offices were actually burnt down. Mandela himself continued to pursue his career despite attempts to get him struck from the roll of lawyers practicing in the area. He risked the loss of his job, the loss of his livelihood and imprisonment more than likely on a daily basis.
His commitment to access to justice for his fellow citizens was without question. What an inspiration.
As a lawyer myself and someone who is often involved in challenging decisions of local authorities/government and testing compatibility of legislation or decisions with human rights, I tend to take it for granted that I walk to work every day without fear. I do not think that my job as a lawyer in the UK is dangerous or carries with it the risk of imprisonment, questioning, threats or torture. As long as I bear in mind my responsibilities to the SRA, to the practice and to the firm I can say and do pretty much anything I like if it assists my client.
Mandela did this under threat. Even in the 21st Century, my fellow professionals abroad face the risk of imprisonment and reprisals for representing clients whose cases are considered sensitive by their governments or authorities.
Recent reports have shown that lawyers in places such as Georgia and Turkey face assaults and threats in carrying out their work. I would urge anyone in the profession or outside the profession who finds this concerning, to lend their support to the International Observatory for Lawyers who work to try and protect our colleagues in countries which aren’t so keen on their lawyers and in particular those who try and protect freedoms and human rights.
Perhaps we can all aspire as lawyers, to be a little bit like Mandela.