Sue James speaks to celebrated barrister S Chelvan about what led him to human rights and asylum law and the sense of public duty that fuels his belief in what he does.
Sue James and S Chelvan at The Parlour, London
‘We need to be there, as activist radical lawyers, at all levels, in all parts of the profession, and in the decision-making process,’ Chelvan tells me when we meet. He feels it’s important to be visible as a legal aid lawyer wherever he goes.
We’re sitting in The Parlour, the second-floor bar of Six Storeys, 11 Soho Square, London. The front of the building overlooks the quiet, leafy square, just a stone’s throw from the bustle of Oxford Street. Chelvan has chosen the venue. He has lots of good memories here: as a young gay man first coming to London in the mid-90s; his 40th birthday celebrations; and where Attitude magazine took their picture of Chelvan for the Pride Awards 2018.
Inside it’s lively. A combination of loud techno music and chatter. It’s probably not the right venue for an interview, but it’s fun and seems relevant to be here. Chelvan tells me it used to be one of the main gay bars in the mid-90s when ‘London was starting to open up, to blossom, to give LGBT+ people a place where we could be safe’. Back then it was called The Edge Bar, when there was still an unequal age of consent, and when his copy of the Gay Times would be put into a brown envelope before leaving the shop. He remembers that his local student gay bar in Southampton ‘still had a window, a sort of flap in the door, that would open to check you were a genuine patron’.
The waiter arrives to take our order. We have failed to choose so far, so Chelvan asks if he could recommend a ‘good red’. The waiter suggests the Barbera, Riva Leone.
Chelvan arrived in the UK on 6 September 1978, aged four. ‘We are Tamils, so we are in the minority in Sri Lanka,’ he tells me. ‘There’s a lot of history of discrimination and persecution.’ His mother was already in the UK, working as a doctor as part of her postgraduate studies, so his parents used that route to bring Chelvan and his younger brother over. Forty years later, he arranged his return from holiday to commemorate this date – a kind of re-entry.
He spent most of his childhood in Worthing. His mother, as the school doctor, was well known and, as such, Chelvan tells me he didn’t experience any racist language. He adds that it may also have been because he was ‘the school nerd’ and ‘always in his books’. This prompts me to ask if he was the ‘quiet one’ at school. ‘Oh, I was never quiet,’ is his immediate response. And much later that evening, I realise how little I knew him, to ask.
The waiter returns with the wine. He pours it into Chelvan’s glass to try first, and I think of the patriarchy that is involved in that small gesture (I am with a discrimination lawyer, after all). Chelvan tastes it, laughs, and says: ‘That’s very dangerous, I love Italian red.’
He describes the age of 14 as a ‘landmark year’: when he suddenly realised, ‘Wow, I’m attracted to the same sex’, and when he first realised he wanted to be a lawyer, although he had to hide both from his parents. They wanted him to marry a nice Tamil girl and follow his mother into medicine.
I ask him if this realisation was scary. ‘Oh yeah,’ he replies, ‘in the first instance it was “Wow, this is fantastic”, and in the second, you recognise how that impacts on your life, because of who you are surrounded by.’
Although his English teacher was prevented from speaking openly about him being gay – because Local Government Act 1988 s28 was still in force – she gave him a James Baldwin novel as part of an extended reading project. It was the first time he’d read about same-sex love and attraction. He tells me of another ‘wow’ moment, on 22 April 1989, watching Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane late at night. Dates are important to him, I find as we chat.
He started an engineering degree at Southampton University, but transferred to law and politics after two years. Southampton was the place he found his ‘space to breathe’. His description of joining what was then known as the ‘Pink Soc’ is very sweet: ‘I did this classic thing of walking in and then straight back out again, a number of times, when one of the guys inside spotted me and asked if I wanted to come in.’ And that was his turning point.
It was while a student, a week before his exams, that his mother asked: ‘Chelvan, are you gay?’ His response resulted in him being kicked out of the family home. He was told that unless he recanted his ‘behaviour and practices’, he was no longer considered part of the family.
A few days later, his belongings arrived at his university accommodation in cardboard boxes, 19 of them. With no support or finances that summer, he found himself in a supermarket in Eastleigh without enough money to buy a loaf of bread. He hasn’t forgotten this experience, though, and it influences how he treats others: buying a chicken and avocado sandwich for the homeless man he passes on the corner each morning when he walks into chambers.
His friends in Southampton became, in the words of Armistead Maupin, his ‘logical family’. He tells me: ‘I’m very lucky that I have a very strong, stubborn and intransigent logical family and could rely on them.’ Two of them went with him to the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year (LALY) awards in 2014, when he was named legal aid barrister of the year. ‘I owe Southampton a lot,’ he reflects.
Law and activism
What Chelvan describes as a ‘seminal moment’ came at Southampton University, when the armed forces had a stall at the careers fair. At this time, gay men and lesbians were not allowed to do military service. He complained to the university that this was contrary to its equal opportunities policy. The response was, that may be so, but ‘the discrimination is lawful’. He came away and thought: ‘If it’s lawful, then I’ll do something about changing the law.’
His practice, as a human rights asylum lawyer, has continued to push boundaries and change the law. He describes himself as a ‘strategic litigator’: he knows where he wants the law to go, and if he’s not understood the first time round, will come back later. He puts this down, in part, to his master’s degree from Harvard, where he was taught to ‘invent the formula'.
He has been invited in the past to enter politics, but he doesn’t ‘trust politicians’. Instead, the law gave him a different way: ‘I represent an individual and I argue a case which, from the way my practice has evolved, will have an impact not just on that individual, but on countless other people.’
I’m a legal aid lawyer through and through, because I believe that I’ve got certain skills my clients deserve to have, irrespective of their ability to pay.
‘I’m a legal aid lawyer through and through, because I believe that I’ve got certain skills my clients deserve to have, irrespective of their ability to pay.’ Chelvan tells me it’s never going to do anything healthy to his bank balance, but if ‘I restricted myself to what legal aid paid, how could you ever win?’
He considers himself both a storyteller and an interpreter. He doesn’t mean language, but narrative. He always meets his clients well before the hearing date and sends his solicitors what he describes as a ‘shopping list’ of things to do. ‘I want to get under their skin,’ he continues, ‘I want to know what their Achilles heel is.’ He reconstructs a case to what he describes as its weakest point, and once he has identified that, will build it up to its strongest. He tells me: ‘The greatest skill in advocacy is not actually oratory, but the ability to listen, and that’s what the legal aid cuts don’t allow for.’ I ask him what we can do about the legal aid crisis. ‘We continue to fight,’ he replies.
The area of law I do is connected with my own personal feelings of the need to contribute back for what happened to me.
Chelvan’s strong sense of public service comes from his family, but also his own experience: ‘The area of law I do is connected with my own personal feelings of the need to contribute back for what happened to me.’ This is reflected in the asylum work he does, but also in his policy and LGBT+ campaigning work.
He was a poster boy for the ‘I am an Immigrant’ campaign. He tells me: ‘It was bizarre seeing my poster in the tube station, but you know, it really connected with people.’ Strangers still recognise him. A little-known fact about him, though, is that he was part of the opening ceremony at the 2012 Olympics. He volunteered, got cast as one of the warriors, and walked out of the Glastonbury Tor replica to the whole stadium. ‘I felt a great sense of camaraderie. A part of what we call the human race,’ he tells me. Even more bizarrely, he appeared – with Miss Whiplash – on the chat show Esther, on the subject ‘Secrets and lies’, which he describes as ‘hilarious’. I make a mental note to try to find it.
He loves the LALYs, which he calls the ‘Legal Aid Oscars’. It’s easy to concentrate on the struggles, he tells me, as the struggles are there, but we do need to highlight the successes. Now a judge, he won’t be drawn on what goes on behind the scenes (and I tried), but we chat about Fiona Bawdon’s annual visit to his home on the pretext of delivering the nominations, but really to visit his two mini-dachshunds, Nomos and Veritas.
‘I think in footnotes,’ Chelvan comments a number of times during the interview. ‘I remember dates and facts.’ He gets called an ‘elephant’ by his husband, Mark, who he met in a nightclub 17 years ago. ‘We met in Heaven,’ he says smiling.
As we chat, he recalls conversations from my previous interviews in this series. I’m surprised. He actually does remember everything. And he has done his homework. He notices that he is my fifth interviewee, but my first BME interview. This leads us to the issue of racism inside and outside the profession. He describes his pupillage as ‘hell’, being ‘too white, in mindset as well as colour’.
His mother had warned him early on that ‘as a person of colour, an ethnic minority, we had to be 10 times better than our white colleagues to be noticed’. He mentions the time he went to Leeds Immigration Tribunal, where the clerk turned to him and said: ‘The interpreters’ room is over there.’
He knows his own story. It has logic, but then it would: it’s Chelvan’s. His 20s were about ‘making mistakes’, including, he tells me, ‘coming out to my mother’. He doesn’t regret it now, but it caused hardship. His 30s were consolidation: ‘I got married and developed my practice.’ Now in his 40s, he believes this is about ‘stepping up a gear’ and ‘grabbing every opportunity offered’. That’s why he agreed to my interview.
He believes he’s now in a good place: his current chambers, No5, is ‘wonderful’; his PhD thesis is almost finished; and he has found a symbiosis between litigation, policy work and academia. He tells me he is continually learning. ‘If you want to change the world,’ he says, ‘you’ve got to be part of that change.’
Hero in the law
Ghandi (because he wouldn’t take no for an answer)
Newport First-tier Immigration Tribunal (there was mutual respect when I first started)
Favourite animal case
No cases but two mini-dachshunds: Nomos (Greek for rules/law) and Veritas (Latin for truth).
Going blonde after graduation (now forbidden by my husband)
‘Dignity’, Deacon Blue (my get-up-and-fight song)
‘Moments of Pleasure’, Kate Bush (first song I ever fell in love with)
Favourite lawyer in TV/film/book