Antonia Benfield is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, specialising in immigration, human rights, and public law. She joined Lawyers Against Poverty in spring 2021. She spoke with our Media Volunteer Emma Pomfret about her experience as an LAP member.
How do you hope to use your skills within Lawyers Against Poverty?
“Refugee rights is obvious for me; I’ve spent 16 years in asylum policy [including working at the Refugee Council]. I’ve also done a lot of work on gender-based persecution and in Doughty Street I’m on the steering group of our International Women’s Day events. I hope to connect with others to contribute in terms of projects and to learn. I also sit on our chambers’ donations committee; we give 1% of our earnings/year to a range of charities and we approved LAP this year. I sent info around chambers and a number of people have signed up as members.”
After working for various NGOs, what drew you to law?
“Over the years, particularly with direct client-facing work, one of the repeated concerns I heard was about legal advice, for instance: ‘My legal aid solicitor doesn’t respond/has messed up my case.’
“I had this overwhelming feeling I could do it better. NGOs are amazing and there’s a really important role for them but often in international protection claims, people have a lot of the innate resilience to sort out their problems once they have legal status. That was the motivation for becoming a refugee lawyer and I did a law conversion [in 2011].”
What attracted you to LAP’s Twinning Programme – how do you think might it change your professional outlook?
“I’ve had a lot of ad hoc collaborative relationships with lawyers overseas. For instance, a Congolese lawyer I met because I was working with Taiwan on cases involving violence against women in Congo. And a young Afghan lawyer did work experience with me, working on women’s rights and then was forced to flee Afghanistan and became a refugee himself in the UK.”
“They’ve been incredibly rewarding relationships in terms of learning the reality of being a lawyer in other parts of the world. In the Congo, for instance, how do you manage corruption in the courts? It’s not an issue we have to deal with in the UK but being broad-minded in terms of the world of law is interesting for case preparation and even training lawyers. LAP’s twinning programme is a way to learn from shared knowledge and collaborate in a structured, mutually beneficial way.”
What value do you see in LAP’s Mentoring Programme and why is mentorship important?
“I’ve always supported mentoring younger people who may not have traditional routes into the law. I mentor through Lincoln’s Inn and the Social Mobility Foundation and I’m sponsoring a young lawyer who is training in Tanzania; I was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and he was working as a guide – he needed £500 for his final year of law training and had been working for three years to save the money. We spent a week together and I thought: I can give you £500. I sponsor him and he reports his grades to me, tells me how it’s going.
“Many law programmes have a mentoring relationship for a year and it drops off. LAP’s is different because it integrates younger people into LAP, so the mentoring has more of an organic and effective output in terms of the projects.”
What differentiates LAP from other initiatives in the legal community?
“There are bodies that bring people together but for the benefit of their members – training, networking. I don’t think there’s another organisation that harnesses the energy in the legal profession for a common cause and with its structure; members can be involved with lots of groups depending on capacity.
“Every lawyer, at the very root of it, must believe in accountability, the rule of law and access to justice. Otherwise why are we here? LAP focuses on the naturally marginalised – refugee rights, land rights, women – so it’s an opportunity in whatever way you can to contribute to the core issues of our time.”