My mother was a political refugee. The family saw Hitler coming, and took a very circuitous route from Czechoslovakia to Bedford Street, London, and refuge here. Ultimately, hearing and seeing what the family had gone through caused me to practise immigration law.
I felt pushed to a legal career by that sense of the imbalance in society between richer people and institutions on the one hand and poorer people on the other, and hoping that I could right some of those wrongs. I realised in my first ever case that the bigger the opponent the more effective the fight will be in favour of the opponent. The virtual abolition of legal aid makes that all the more stark.
I was a trade union lawyer – they were in a lot of situations the underdog, and their members were the underdog, and it was incredibly important to me to redress that imbalance by being a fighter for those less privileged in the economic bargain. There has been a total rewrite of immigration law since 2008, and further big changes in the last six months. Every time you feel you have learned a bit of law, and learned to practise it well, and won against the government, they change it.
When a client does not tell you the whole story, you have to turn detective a bit. But technically the hardest client is one who cannot express themselves very well.
As well as being tenacious, a good lawyer is prepared to be cynical and sceptical as a method of rooting out the right information to advise a client. When you tell a client how complex a situation is, they tend to think it is your fault. Running an office is a challenge. I can see why it is needed, but the amount of scrutiny we are under – be it from the VAT-man, HMRC or our legal regulators – can also detract from the ability of a lawyer to manage a file properly.
Immigration lawyers are an incredibly collegiate part of the profession. Almost all are happy to share technical information, or lines of argument they are using with the Home Office, with competitors.
Even acting for a famous entertainer, there is an imbalance of power when facing the state. Opposing Snoop Dogg’s entry to the UK, the Home Office brought three civil servants and a two-foot-high bundle of documents to the hearing.
I am concerned about the trivialisation of the law, and UKBA’s attempts to ‘simplify’ it. It is important to have the time to debate the issues with a legal adviser to find the best course.
Philip Trott is a partner and head of immigration at Bates Wells & Braithwaite