Lawling about

Posted: 21 November 2014

So January has been a fairly busy month for me. I've continued to attend prison every week, offering legal advice and representation where possible.

I had one encounter with an inmate called Sam that had a profound impact on me (see Sam's blog for more). It can be quite emotionally challenging-last week I was interviewing a Nigerian footballer who broke down in tears halfway through. He had clearly overstayed his visa, and there was nothing we could do to help him other than advise him to plead guilty so as to have a lesser sentence/fine. I've got to know many of the inmates and prison guards fairly well now; so much so that later this month we're holding our first prison seminar. This is aimed at providing the inmates with a basic understanding of the legal process so that they can self-represent. The harrowing reality is that most have little to no legal knowledge. Many don't understand the case against them. Many don't know when they're next appearing in court. Most haven't even seen their own charge sheet. This is something that needs changing.

I continue to attend court regularly too. As I can't address the judge, and our lawyer is incredibly busy, this normally involves me seeking the necessary instructions from the lawyer/client, and then asking another lawyer in the courtroom to address the judge on our behalf. One of the things I've enjoyed the most has been the vast array of clients and work we have. Last week, we were representing 3 Syrian refugees that had been arrested in Kenya for carrying false documents. Under international law, it is legal to forge travel documents if you are fleeing a war-torn country. We explained this to the court, and the refugees were taken out of prison, and placed under UN care. Today, I was compiling some research on the distribution of matrimonial property in Kenya, ahead of a case in the Court of Appeal in a few weeks (the current law is incredibly harsh towards women as non-financial contributions such as the bearing of children aren't taken into consideration). Each day is different.

A particular highlight was a forensic psychiatry training workshop last weekend that CLEAR organised in partnership with the UK charity, Death Penalty Project. Organising an event is never easy. Organising an event in Kenya, where most people (without meaning to stereotype too much) abide by "Kenyan time", is nigh on impossible. The event was aimed at mental health professionals and lawyers involved in capital offence cases. Mental health provisions in Kenya are still in their infancy (there are fewer than 100 psychologists in the country), and as such there can be quite a disconnect between the legal and psychiatric worlds. This is important when psychiatrists are ordered by court to provide reports into the accused persons, touching on topics ranging from the defences of insanity and diminished responsibility, through to whether they had the intent required for the offence. Experts flew in from the UK, psychologists/psychiatrists came from all corners of Kenya, and the event was quite a success. We are hoping to hold similar events later on this year that will touch more directly on the unconstitutionality of the death penalty here.

Having lived in Nairobi for 3/4 months now, I have concluded that it's a strange place to live. It seems to be stuck in two worlds. The shadows of skyscrapers loom ominously over poverty-ravaged slums. Golf clubs and spas sit across the road from HIV clinics. On my walk to work, I will often see the stereotypical "African" image of a woman in traditional dress, carrying a bag of goods on her head to sell at the local market. A couple of metres down the road, I will pass a businessman talking on his iPhone, in a fancy suit, while his Range Rover waits in the notoriously slow Nairobi rush hour traffic. There is a quaint mixture between old and new, rich and poor.

It is not a particularly easy place for a newcomer. Crime rates are exceedingly high (it's nicknamed 'Nairobbery' for a reason) and it's not safe to be outside late at night, especially for a white person. Being a 'mzungu' here has its pros and cons. At times, I can be treated with slightly unwanted reverence, simply because I am a guest to Kenya. Most of the time I am stared at, but I keep telling myself that it's because of my devilish good looks, and not the fact that I am on the complete opposite side of the colour spectrum to almost everyone. Other times, I am approached by conmen hoping to take advantage. On one occasion, I got talking to a "friendly" man on the street who invited me for a drink. Being typically British and not wanting to offend, I accepted the offer. 20 minutes later, he had finally informed me that he wanted me to give him some money so that he could "see his family in Zimbabwe". He was clearly a conman, and I quickly left (only after paying for his orange juice, because that's the kind of guy I am).
If you've read this far, then I take my metaphorical hat off to you. This update was a bit long-winded, and contained more legal jargon/ramblings than I had intended. Hopefully it comes across just how how much I'm enjoying the work out here.