Anti-slavery hero: Parosha Chandran

The indomitable human rights barrister – who has shaped the law on modern slavery and trafficking – on pivotal moments, landmark law and light during dark days

Prepping for our interview before we meet on a chilly, autumnal morning, I quickly realise that Parosha Chandran’s is a CV that keeps on giving. Barrister of the Year (2008, Law Society), Human Rights Lawyer of the Year (2009, Society of Asian Lawyers), United Nations Expert on Trafficking in Persons (since 2012), Trafficking in Persons Hero (2015, presented by John Kerry, US Secretary of State) and Professor of Practice in Modern Slavery Law (since 2018, a chair created specifically in recognition of her work shaping the law of modern slavery and trafficking) – the list goes on.

Yet Parosha wasn’t to discover what she describes as her ‘life’s purpose’ until she heard judge and Professor Theodor Meron speak about the Bosnian War on a new course at the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, during her LLB. His description of the atrocities, the lack of international response and the possibility of marrying international law with justice hit Parosha hard. ‘I felt an almost physical pain when I learned about the war crimes being committed, neighbour against neighbour, yet I found peace in a calm realisation that law could help. The fight wasn’t for myself anymore. I would fight for the human rights of others.’

Her personal fight had been, I discover, a search for the self amid the kind of identity crisis often experienced by diaspora children and those of mixed heritage. Born to a Tamil Hindu father from northern Sri Lanka and a Pakistani Muslim mother from northern Pakistan, Parosha was neither fully Tamil, Pakistani – ‘I tick the “Asian-Other” box on forms’ – nor English. Racial name-calling in her Nottinghamshire home town was a sometime occurrence: ‘In those days it was normal; as a child I just had to endure it. Who was I supposed to be?’

Her parents, both doctors, and members of the Conservative Party, believed in the importance of financial success and striving to become the best in any chosen career path; ‘“There’s always room at the top,” my father would tell me.’ (Her parents went on to become Mayor and Mayoress of the Borough of Gedling. When it became apparent that Parosha’s strengths lay in pursuing an argument, they hoped she would become a commercial barrister.)

Back in London, energised by what she had learned in Strasbourg, Parosha volunteered at the British Institute of Human Rights whilst studying for an LLM at University College London. Here she met Sir Nicolas Bratza QC, UK representative at the European Commission of Human Rights (where she later interned) and future President of the European Court of Human Rights who had an ‘extraordinary mix of world-leading expertise, power and kindness’.

Bar school completed – after a few hitches (‘lapse of focus, owing to a greater interest in human rights beyond the classroom’) – she was called to the Bar in 1997. Between pupillages, she interned at the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, then based in Millbank Tower, which also happened to be the seat of the Labour Party’s general election campaign.

A pivotal moment came after New Labour’s victory, when the Queen’s Speech announced that the UK would bring the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law by way of a Human Rights Act. The next day Parosha faxed the Lord Chancellor’s Department her CV (‘I hadn’t noticed it was actually a Home Office Bill…’) offering to share her human rights law expertise. They wrote straight back, asked for a meeting, appointed her an independent expert and sought her advice on reforms to court procedures. What emboldened her to make such a move? ‘The desire to help was greater than my fear.’

Shortly after tenancy came the opportunity to work at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in 1999. By day she was a law clerk on the General Blaški trial in the Office of the Prosecutor and by night was busy completing a book on the Human Rights Act. At the Hague she drafted the legal argument in the first ever successful petition for witness anonymity granted by the war crimes tribunal to protect those having to testify. ‘Evidence-giving had become a big problem as witnesses were terrified and in fear of reprisals for testifying against extremely powerful accused war criminals. I [showed] how it was possible to balance the rights of the witnesses with the rights of the accused.’

Returning to London to further her legal practice, she started working on cases with ‘visionary’ Anna Johansson, manager at the Poppy Project shelter for trafficked victims. ‘I was concerned at how survivors of human trafficking in England essentially had no human rights.’ Under Home Office policy at the time, only victims of sex trafficking giving evidence against their traffickers were admitted to the shelter and when the trials ended they would be removed to their home countries. ‘There was such a high risk of trafficking or reprisals on their return… it just didn’t make sense. I set about trying to establish a legal precedent to protect all trafficked victims at risk of harm on return.’

By 2008, then in practice at the ‘amazingly supportive’ 1 Pump Court, through the landmark case of SB (PSG–Protection Regulations-Reg 6) Moldova CG [2008] UKIAT 00002, she was able to do just that. The tribunal accepted that former victims of trafficking could not only constitute a particular social group under the Refugee Convention and established a risk of persecution on return, including reprisals or re-trafficking. This changed law and Home Office policy.

Soon after, Parosha, led by Peter Carter QC brought the first criminal case of ‘non-punishment’ in R v O[2008] EWCA Crim 2835, the first to recognise that victims of trafficking had a right not to be prosecuted for offences committed as a direct result of being trafficked. The case involved a Nigerian girl trafficked into the UK who used false documentation to flee England and escape her trafficker, for which she was prosecuted and sentenced to imprisonment of eight months by the crown court as an adult and without a pre-sentence report. The Court of Appeal overturned her conviction, hoping ‘that such a shameful set of circumstances never occurs again’ and required that unpublished CPS protocols on non-punishment/discontinuance of charges for trafficking victims be printed in Archbold and Blackstone.

Another precedent-setting case was R v L and Others [2013] EWCA Crim 991 in which Parosha was able to overturn the conviction of a trafficked Vietnamese boy for cannabis cultivation and the conviction of a trafficked Ugandan woman for unknowingly using a false passport. Through all this she cites the ‘wonderful partnerships’ she developed with many NGOs and experts which supported her during personally difficult times. When opponents sought to undermine her: ‘I decided never to give up.’

Parosha still strives for balance: ‘Cases always overlap and not all of your family and friends are OK at the same time.’ She recalls 2003, on a skiing holiday, drafting a legal opinion for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on whether a British national, imprisoned in Bahrain for manslaughter, had had a fair trial. The Iraq War was about to break and as he was the only Briton serving a prison sentence in the Gulf there was deep concern over his safety. ‘Everyone was skiing and partying. I sat in the kitchen for two days, writing this opinion. My friends kept asking whether I’d finished yet and I’d say, “NO, I haven’t finished.” It was life or death.’ She advised the FCO that the Briton had received an unfair trial under international human rights norms, Home Secretary Jack Straw successfully applied for a diplomatic pardon on his behalf, and he was swiftly returned.

Parosha says that her instinct to help took priority over personal life ‘for several years’, but this changed when she had her son, Kamran in 2009. ‘There was some protective feature as a mother that [stopped me saying yes] to everything as I’d done before.’ She describes her son as the ‘best thing that ever happened to me; he made me young again.’ However, like most barristers, she still gets to Friday night and just thinks, ‘That’s another week I survived!’

Being exposed to the most horrific aspects of humanity inevitably entails ‘dark days’. One of her worst was when told that her client, M, a Ugandan girl trafficked into the UK, was appeal-rights exhausted. M was highly vulnerable and suicidal, having been abused and raped by her step-father, following which she gave birth to a child in a refugee camp when she was still a child herself. A soldier in the camp, who abused her and then promised to marry her, took her to Kampala, wrenched the baby away, sold her and trafficked her to the UK for sexual exploitation. Leading experts gave evidence at M’s asylum hearing yet, despite accepting all of the facts, the judge dismissed the appeal on the basis that the UK had no obligation to protect M from removal to Uganda. She was denied an opportunity to go before another judge once written representations were refused.

‘I could not sleep that night. I thought I’d have to go with her to Uganda to find protection for her.’ By morning she had ‘determined to lodge the first trafficking case against the UK in Strasbourg’ and within a matter of months, the case settled favourably for M in the European Court of Human Rights.

How does Parosha learn to emotionally process cases like this? ‘I find a way to bridge the distance between me and someone else’s pain by seeing myself as part of the solution. There are, of course, moments when I’ve felt the pain, but I [soon learnt] that absorbing it too much could prevent me from being the solution they need.’

In spite of the challenges, and the darker side of humanity that her work exposes her to, Parosha’s faith in its goodness is still very much intact: ‘There are good people in the right places [and] that can give you courage to get up and take the next steps.’

A stark example of this is Patience Asuquo, trafficked into the UK and kept as a slave (Patience has waived anonymity). Parosha was instructed by Liberty to review the police’s failure to investigate trafficking. The Chief Commissioner of the Police settled with an admission that he had breached positive obligations on him under human rights law to investigate. Accepting the focus of his investigators had been on sex-trafficking and not on forced labour, he retrained his team to identify forced labour and exploitation.

Moreover, ‘Patience’s case exposed a massive legislation gap: whilst we had historically abolished the transatlantic slave trade, and recently criminalised human trafficking, we had forgotten to criminalise the actual holding of a person in slavery or servitude or requiring them to perform forced labour.’

Patience gave evidence before a parliamentary committee, as part of a push to introduce into the Coroners and Justice Bill a freestanding clause on slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour. ‘Within a few hours [of Patience’s evidence], a majority was going to vote in favour of the amendment and the government was going to lose its vote in the House of Lords. Overnight, the government adopted the clause as its own.

‘That is the story of what became s 71 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 and is now s 1 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.’ Thereafter, Parosha was involved in advising on the formation of provisions for its Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts.

2016 was a difficult year for Parosha. She and her son survived a serious car crash. A few weeks later her father passed away. She remained in practice through 2017, only to be diagnosed in 2018 in the first stage of spinal paralysis, thankfully diverted following an emergency operation. After three months of recuperation, on her first day back she took a plane to Uganda to advise ‘inspirational MPs in Kampala’ on amendments to their trafficking legislation. ‘Surviving spinal surgery has refreshed my perspective dramatically. I’m making decisions more quickly and with a much more profiled outcome of why and how I want to achieve things.’

There is no sense that Parosha is slowing down. In 2017, she was appointed a Senior Legal Adviser to Parliament’s Modern Slavery Project. What it is like working with Parliament after a history of bringing cases against the State? ‘The change has been fascinating and illuminating. It goes back to the point that there are many good people in the world in the right places.’ She has also recently been commissioned by Lumos, JK Rowling’s charity, to draft a legal response to orphanage trafficking. On the practice side, an imminent judgment from the European Court of Human Rights is expected in her case of AN v the UK, App No. 74603/12 (consideration of ‘non-punishment’ under Article 26 of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings for a Vietnamese child victim of human trafficking for cannabis cultivation).

As the first Professor of Modern Slavery Law she teaches her own LLM course at King’s College London each Spring: ‘Sometimes, you see someone who is so able, calm and driven and you know that everything is going to be OK… There’s still more law to be crafted, more awareness to be raised. For example, we need to get to a stage where corporations are prosecuted for these crimes and receive deterrent sentences; there are numerous, horrific cases of people being trafficked through recruitment agencies and enslaved.’

Time has flown and the dynamic Parosha has to go. Warmed by our chat over carrot cake and coffee, I am also heartened by the importance she places on kindness in the law. She leaves me with this codicil:

‘Often kindness can be taken as weakness or stupidity but what we need to appreciate is that it’s an expression of humanity and a critical feature of legal thought and creativity. In human rights law, it is extremely powerful as it not only helps those who are vulnerable and need protection, but by its application and reflection it will also improve the very heart of a State.’

Araniya Kogulathas is a barrister at Lamb Building, who specialises in advice, representation and advocacy in all areas of immigration and asylum law.