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Human rights lawyer: 'We can win reparations fight'

FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE: Lawyer Martyn Day, centre, speaks outside London’s High Court after being given the go-ahead to proceed with the Mau Mau case

IN AN exclusive interview with The Voice, human rights lawyer Martyn Day, a partner at law firm Leigh Day, speaks about the the landmark legal case his firm has taken up: pursuing the British and other European governments for reparations over their role in the slave trade.

Last year his firm successfully negotiated a £22 million compensation package for victims of British torture during the 1950s Mau Mau uprising.

The Voice (TV): Why did you decide to take on this case?
Martyn Day (MD): We were contacted by Ralph Gonsalves, the Prime Minister of St Vincent, last spring [2013]. He is a persuasive man. But [reparations for slavery] is an issue of its time; one that is resonating in British society. Having concluded the Mau Mau case, it seemed to me it was an issue that needed airing significantly. Although it’s a tough case legally, it’s one I felt was a fight worth fighting.

TV: How difficult will it be to win?
MD: The fact that it is a case involving issues that are two to four hundred years old is a massive impediment to a victory. But we feel the morality of the whole thing is very strong and I think there is a real prospect that we will be able to persuade the British Government and other governments of the Western powers to sit round the table and try to resolve it. The morality of the case is massive and I think it will be vey well recognised. William Hague is the foreign secretary who wrote the definitive book on [British abolitionist] William Wilberforce, so we have a foreign secretary who is absolutely knowledgeable about the issue. I hope we get a very sympathetic ear from the British government and have some chance of resolving it.

TV: What is the scale of the case?
MD: We are putting together a package to put to the Caricom leaders next month as to what work is going to need to be done and the process. How much work will depend on the view of the Caricom leaders.

TV: Will you be the person leading the case or will you be working in conjunction with others in the Caribbean?
MD: Yes, we are leading the legal case. It may be other people might get involved, but we would be bringing the case to the International Courts of Justice (ICJ)…but that is way down the road. At this stage, it is mainly about preparing the case and making sure it’s powerful as possible.

TV: If you were successful, how will the sum of reparations be quantified in monetary terms, taking into consideration current debts owed to Britain. Do you think the governments in question will use this as a negotiation?
MD: That is another thing we are going to be discussing with the Caricom leaders: what is the scale and scope of the claims. There are a lot of issues, but the primary question is, what is the impact of the slave era on the Caribbean today? We are not proposing to claim on behalf of all the individual families who have slavery in their past, but what is the impact today. Debt may well be one of the issues but it’s about welfare, education…[there are a number of] cultural sides to it, a number of different areas we will be wanting to look at to make sure we put a powerful case to the British Government.

TV: Mark Simmonds [the minister for the Caribbean] recently said during a trip to Jamaica that the British government would not back down. How do you plan to overcome this?
MD: I haven’t yet had a case where at the beginning the defendant, whoever that may be, turns around and says: ‘Yeah, we totally agree with you and are going to pay everything that you ask.’ In any case you expect a fight, so it’s for us to persuade the British government that they are wrong and that this is an issue that needs to be resolved now. I’m pretty optimistic that we can do that.”

TV: Can the British government be made by the courts to pay reparations?
MD: I think we have a good chance to persuade the British government to negotiate and if we have to go to court, I am optimistic we would give it a fighting chance. A case as old as this is always going to be a big hurdle to get over, but I wouldn’t get into it if I didn’t feel there was a fighting chance. The intention is for the governments to reach an amicable deal with the Western powers rather than fighting through the courts. If that can’t be done, then we are clear this matter will go before the ICJ.

TV: Regarding the successful Kenyan case, how did you feel about the verdict and what lessons did you learn?
MD: At the beginning, no one would have given us the slightest chance of success with a case that is 50/60 years old. What we learnt from it is that these issues do resonate in courts and in the public imagination and governments are susceptible to both of these issues. These are tough battles and hurdles are high, but they aren’t totally insurmountable. Winning was fabulous, one of the best days of my life.

TV: Do you think it sets a precedent where crimes against humanity are concerned?
MD: The Kenyan case showed where you get extreme treatment like extreme torture or, in this case, slavery, the courts are sympathetic even after 50 years. That was a massive step forward.

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