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Mr Sailesh Mehta

Mr Sailesh Mehta

Our Lawyer of the Month is Sailesh Mehta, a barrister and the Chair of the Society of Asian Lawyers (SAL) and one of its founding members 17 years ago.

He is a barrister of over 20 years’ experience who specialises in Serious Crime, Human Rights and Environmental Law. He regularly prosecutes and defends serious fraud, regulatory proceedings and Environmental cases.

Sailesh was born in 1963 in Tanzania, East Africa, and therefore regards himself as African and Asian.  However, when he was just one year old the family moved to India and then came to England when he was seven. He lived in a council house, went to a local comprehensive school and was one of a handful of students who went on to further education.  His class teacher actively discouraged him from reading Law.
But after gaining his LLB at Manchester University 1984, he immediately began a course in chartered accountancy. He said: “After University I decided that I could never succeed at the Bar because I was the wrong colour, had the wrong background and had no financial support.  After the first day as a trainee Chartered Accountant, I decided life was too short to worry about what could go wrong and so I decided I’d rather have a try at the Bar and fail, than not try at all.  As a result, every extra year at the Bar is one year away from accountancy.  Life is good!”

Sailesh attended Inns of Court School of Law – twice almost getting expelled for high jinks – and was called to the Bar (Lincoln’s Inn) in 1986. He did his pupillage at the Chambers of Dan Hollis QC, at Queen Elizabeth Buildings.  He is currently a member of Chambers at 2 Hare Court, a leading criminal set.

He was one of the founding members of the Bar Human Rights Committee and its first vice-chair. The committee was set up by a group of barristers in 1991. Its aims were to help judges, lawyers and legal personnel being persecuted or prevented from carrying out their professional duties and protect the rule of law where it is under attack by governments.

One of Sailesh’s passions in life is to get the Government to scrap the proposed Legal Aid reforms put forward by Lord Carter. To this end SAL and the Black Solicitors’ Network (BSN) joined forces and in April this year commenced Judicial Review proceedings to challenge the proposed changes, which would deny or restrict access to justice for many minority ethnic communities.

In his capacity as SAL Chair he is quoted as saying:  “When minority communities feel that their access to justice is being curtailed, this can only have negative consequences for race relations. We can see no economic or other justification for these disastrous Government proposals.
“Over many months we have warned the Government that its actions are disproportionately unfair and that it should carry out a race impact assessment but it has refused to do so. We are therefore forced to commence legal action to fight for our communities’ right to full access to justice and to hold the Government accountable for its duties under the Race Relations Act.”

As reported previously on BLD, Rabinder Singh QC and Michael Webster, partner at Webster Dixon, both donated their professional skills and time to help SAL and BSN in their cause.

Sailesh is also currently involved in a project to persuade the FTSE 100 companies to sign up to a “Diversity Charter” which would require large City law firms who want their legal work to prove their commitment to diversity. This has already attracted a major FTSE 100 sponsor and a launch is planned this autumn.
A couple of months ago he was instructed in one of the country’s biggest environmental prosecutions against a firm based in London and the Home Counties. It had illegally exported 1.8 milliom kgs of household waste to India, China and Indonesia.

Throughout his career Sailesh has been involved in a number of high profile criminal and environmental cases. Among his notable defence cases have been a double murder; leading the defence in a three-month trial for kidnap and blackmail; a fraud trial, which started as a £40m allegation, and lasted eight months.  Sailesh is currently instructed in an £80 million fraud case.

Sailesh also represented half of the families in a criminal injuries compensation case following the “Dover 58” trial. Fifty-eight Chinese nationals died in the back of a lorry entering the port in 2000.

As a prosecutor he also took part in an aspect of the “American death ships” saga, advising the Environment Agency in relation to ships carrying toxic waste from America.

One of the personal highlights in his career was on a human rights mission in his role as vice-Chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee.
He recalls: “We visited Malawi to try to meet Africa’s second-longest serving prisoners of conscience – Orton and Vera Chirwa, who had the audacity to ask for democracy in Malawi.

“We persuaded the Life President, Hastings Banda (who had been a GP in Scotland and loved all things British and had a reputation for feeding his opponents to crocodiles) to allow us access to the two prisoners, who were barristers and members of Lincoln’s Inn.
“Sadly, Orton died in custody shortly after our visit (we sent a pathologist who confirmed death from natural causes) but Vera was released and stayed at my house for a few days when she visited the UK.”

Sailesh was named by the Asian Media Group as one of the top 10 Asian lawyers in the country.
He is married with a son.

Below is our interview with Sailesh.
BLD: Why did you choose a legal career?
SM:   I’m argumentative, opinionated, obsessive and always right!  Very few professions allow entry to anyone with such attributes.

BLD: If you were to choose another role/profession other than law, what would it be and why?
SM: I would want to be a BBC war correspondent – it is marginally more dangerous than being a bare-foot legal aid lawyer.

BLD: What was the best career advice you were given?
SM: When I accidentally rubbed out a week’s work done by my audit team, the advice from the Partner in the firm was: “Accountancy is not for you.”

BLD: What was the worst career advice you were given?
SM: “Tell the Judge what you really think of him, he’ll appreciate it!”

BLD: What career advice would you give to others?
SM:   Develop a thick skin, have no fear and embrace rejection.

BLD: Who is the person you most admire (dead or alive) and why?
SM:   My 11-year-old son, Arun – he lives life for today and to the full, with no regrets and no fear.

BLD: How do you see the future for black and ethnic minority lawyers doing Legal Aid work given the potentially catastrophic effect of the Carter reforms?
SM: We have been telling Lord Carter for a year that there is no economic justification for the proposed reforms. We have also told him that the changes will result in a disproportionately large number of BME firms going out of business. We told the Department of Constitutional Affairs that a full race impact assessment should be carried out before such monumental changes are carried out. They did not do so. The effect of their decision will be to deprive BME communities’ access to justice and will result in more miscarriage of justice cases.

BLD: What are you currently doing and planning to do in the future about the Carter reforms?
SM:  Because we believe the Carter reforms will have a huge negative impact on BME communities' access to justice, the Society of Asian Lawyers and the Black Solicitors' Network have commenced judicial review proceedings against the Department of Constitutional Affairs. We felt duty bound to take legal action in protection of BME communities, when persuasion did not work.

BLD: How do you cope with the media attention?
SM: I try to send a send a picture of my more handsome body double!

BLD: What are you most passionate/happiest about?
SM:  Nothing pleases me more than a good argument.  I come from a family in which we argued non-stop.  Guests at dinner would wonder at the sight of two adults and four children in the Mehta family arguing volubly through dinner and dessert about anything and everything.  One should challenge every rule and test every statement to destruction – it is the best protection against tyranny.

BLD: What are your dislikes?
SM: I dislike compromise and the third way.

BLD: What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
SM:   My lay client was charged with kidnapping eight people.  The defence was that he knew nothing of the kidnapping even though he was arrested in a room where the victims were held hostage, bound and gagged.  I called a character witness who, apropos nothing, said that my client had phoned him to tell him: “The kidnapping has started.”  I keep a framed transcript of this on my wall in case I ever think too highly of myself.

BLD: Tell us your professional high point(s).
SM:  Surviving another year at the Criminal Bar.
BLD: What was the most famous/interesting case(s) you have handled to date?
SM: I have represented alleged Triad kidnappers, East End villains, Columbian drugs barons and murderers.  I recently prosecuted a company that was exporting vast amounts of waste to China and India.  My recent favourite case was “the Great duck fraud” in which I prosecuted a man who fooled some of the UK’s best known TV chefs into believing common pond ducks were pedigree prize ducks.  

BLD: Any professional regrets?
SM: To quote Woody Allen: “My one regret in life is that I was not born as someone else.”

BLD: If you could rule the world for a day what would you change/do?
SM:  I’d bring together all the land masses and jumble up all boundaries that divide human beings and sit back and watch.  If God existed, I would want Him to be completely interventionist!

BLD:  Tell us more about you family life?
SM: I am married to Kam, who works with children with special needs. We have an 11-year-old son (11 going on 25!).



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