The Author

Kate Parker
Kate Parker

About this blog

Welcome to the 5PB Blog where you can find comments and thoughts on current legal topics.

Kate Parker recently spent a month in Kampala, Johannesburg and Cape Town as part of a legal exchange between 5 Paper Buildings, Peters & Peters and pan-African firm Bowmans Law.

What began as an informal conversation in the stairwell of Chambers very quickly became a flight to Kampala, Uganda for the first leg of the UK-Africa litigation exchange on behalf of 5 Paper Buildings. I knew it was going to be fun. What I didn’t expect was quite how rewarding the month would be both personally and professionally. As a lawyer, it was a unique insight into the litigation culture, court procedure and rule of law in two separate jurisdictions, and an opportunity to see top advocates on their feet in some of Africa’s highest national courts. As someone craving some time away after pupillage, it was an unrivalled opportunity to explore three new cities in two new countries with the local insight of those who know them best.

My diet was varied, and reflected the diversity of Bowmans’ clients. The Kampala office alone represents huge corporations (Facebook, WhatsApp, etc) looking to strengthen their position in the East African market, as well as political dissidents and defendants in high-profile criminal cases. In a typical day, I would sit through anti-money laundering training for a client bank, witness the cross-examination of a company director in a shipping arbitration, and attend the bail application of a prominent political activist. The latter, in particular, made me acutely aware of the privilege of living somewhere where freedom of expression is a daily exercised right, not an aspiration. This particular activist had been charged with the offence of “cyber harassment” having called the Ugandan President “a pair of buttocks” on Facebook, after he had failed to deliver on an election campaign promise to provide sanitary products to women and girls in rural Uganda. Had such language been criminalized in post-Brexit London, most people I know would have met the same fate.

The Kampala team in particular made me appreciate the strength and determination needed to stand up and represent someone in the knowledge that often every decision from their arrest to first appearance is political or corrupt, that the outcome is a foregone conclusion and that any hope of justice is reserved for the final appeal to the Supreme Court some five years later (provided, of course, that at least the majority of judicial appointments at that level remain non-partisan). The conditions these lawyers operate in are alien to the London bar. That they are able to maintain a calmness, optimism and passion for what they do in such circumstances must be testament to the mettle of those in practice.

Efforts were made to prioritise my time in court, and I saw cases litigated at all stages of the court process: from local Magistrates courts (where I learnt the hard way not to wear heels during the Ugandan rainy season) through appellate courts to the Constitutional Court of South Africa. It was there that I spent a day listening to legal argument on whether the South African constitution could be interpreted to allow for a motion of no confidence in President Zuma to be conducted in secret - a case of equivalent gravity to our ‘Brexit’ case in the Supreme Court. What ours lacked, however, was the carnivalesque atmosphere of the thousands gathered on the steps of court to protest Zuma’s presidency: their singing and drum beats were clearly audible above counsels’ submissions. The court building itself is submerged into the ground and a window runs around the parameter of the room so that the Justices sit at eye level with the feet of pedestrians outside – a visual reminder that, in interpreting the constitution, they serve the will of the people. The extent to which the space had any impact upon the radical decision to read into the constitution a discretionary power to trigger a secret ballot (a populist, anti-government outcome) cannot be known.

At no stage did the educational side of the exchange eclipse the obvious effort that went into ensuring I made the most of each place outside of office hours. I was taken to food markets, beaches, weddings and nightclubs (still going strong at 10am in Kampala, when they serve breakfast); I was given political tours and wine tours; I ran the Cape Town 12K and Table Mountain; I was joined by two self-sacrificing trainees on an afternoon’s chocolate and wine tasting, and I ate more local cuisine than I can name.

The litigation exchange is a unique and exciting project. Through the contacts I made, I was introduced to new dimensions of the profession and I learnt how it adapted to the particular challenges presented by different jurisdictions. I know of no equivalent opportunity offered to barristers of my call and I look forward to seeing its growth in future years.

Posted by Kate Parker on 16 October 2017 at 09:53