David Burgess – an appreciation

David Burgess – an appreciation


Written by: Frances Webber

David (also known as Sonia) Burgess, an immigration lawyer who died in tragic circumstances on 25 October 2010, will long be remembered for his pioneering work defending the rights of migrants and asylum seekers.

The firm he helped to set up in 1975, Winstanley Burgess, soon set the standard for all legal aid immigration practices for its superb work and tenacious dedication to refugee rights. In the 1980s, he uncovered and challenged the Home Office practice of instructing airlines to deny disembarkation to intending asylum seekers. At that time I was a ‘baby barrister’ trying to break in to the then exclusively male specialism of immigration. He gave me my break in February 1987, instructing me to run across to the High Court to get an injunction to prevent the removal of fifty-eight Tamil asylum seekers who had been summarily refused on arrival and were being removed. When I say ‘run’ I mean it literally – immigration officials were escorting the Tamils to the plane, and they, hearing of David’s efforts, decided to help by stripping off on the tarmac. We got our injunction – but eventually the men’s judicial review claims were rejected and they were sent back to Sri Lanka. David didn’t give up – he and a colleague followed the men to Sri Lanka, saw what happened to them on their return, and armed with his own evidence to back up theirs, returned to London and won their appeals. As a result of his work on these cases, the law was changed in 1993 to ensure that asylum seekers could appeal against refusal of asylum before being sent home.

David represented Viraj Mendis, who went into sanctuary in a Manchester church to avoid deportation (eventually his case was lost and he left the UK in 1989 and settled in Germany). He also represented Karamjit Singh Chahal, a Punjabi Sikh who was held without trial for six years in Bedford prison pending deportation as a suspected terrorist, as he fought for refugee status. David took the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, establishing in a historic decision that even those suspected of terrorism could not be returned to a real risk of torture in their home country. Another historic case was his successful contempt of court action against the Home Secretary for removing a Zairean asylum seeker in breach of a court undertaking. The House of Lords upheld his complaint, in a decision which reversed centuries of deference to Crown ministers.

But although David was extraordinarily ambitious for those he represented, he had no personal ambition and was indeed the most modest and self-effacing of people. Courteous, with a gentle manner, he inspired the confidence of those he represented through his utter commitment and inexhaustible work on their behalf, delighted barristers lucky enough to work for him for the astonishing thoroughness of his preparation, and won the confidence of the courts and tribunals for his total integrity.

David/ Sonia Burgess, immigration lawyer, 25 September 1947 – 25 October 2010.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

2 thoughts on “David Burgess – an appreciation

  1. We had the privilege to have worked with Sonia (David) Burgess. She was not only creative, principled and thorough; she was compassionate and respectful to her clients, and accountable to the wider movement for justice. While she paid scrupulous attention to the legal work needed to make the strongest case in court, she worked with campaigners who gathered public support. She recognised that changing the political climate outside court was also crucial to winning justice. Almost uniquely she confronted those in her profession who were lazy, neglectful and even corrupt. In 1997 she wrote about the devastating consequences of malpractice: “in the field of asylum work it is a truth known to practitioners that legal representation can kill.” We are shattered to have lost such a caring human being so early and in such tragic circumstances. The standard she set is one which all lawyers must be held to. Niki Adams, Legal Action for Women Crossroads Women’s Centre 230A Kentish Town Road London NW5 2AB

  2. For some reason I only just found this. Not much to add really but of course we were there in the Viraj Mendis campaign. I particularly remember David (as she then was) getting a comrade to run around The Strand to find somewhere to use a new innovation of the times (this was in 1987 I think) and ‘send a fax’ to Manchester, so that everyone up there, were Viraj was in sanctuary could process the latest decision in his legal case. He knew that the legal was political.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.