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World Refugee Day: An interview with Michael West

June 20, 2020 is World Refugee Day, an occasion to highlight and applaud the contribution of forcibly displaced people across the world. Today, we’re talking to ULaw alumni Michael West who studied the GDL and BPTC at our London Bloomsbury campus. Michael is a specialist immigration barrister for 12 Old Square Chambers. We caught up with him to discuss his time at ULaw and how it led to his current role representing refugees.

I chose to study at The University of Law (or the College of Law as it was known then) because its reputation was very good and I knew people who were studying there already. I knew I wanted to do something vocational after I’d finished my degree in languages but I never had any underlying desire as a young person to pursue a career in law. However, I don’t have any regrets. Completing the GDL was the highlight of my time at ULaw – the single most challenging thing in all my years of study.

There are never any two days alike in the field of immigration law but typically I would be attending one of the Immigration Tribunals (either the First-tier Tribunal (FtT) or Upper Tribunal (UT)) to present an appeal of my client against a decision of the Secretary of State for the Home Department (or if in the UT, a decision of the FtT).

The FtT will usually involve the giving of evidence by the client (and any witnesses) with whom I will have held a brief conference at the tribunal on the morning of the hearing. Clients often require interpreters or have physical or mental health conditions which render them vulnerable so those issues are dealt with in preliminary matters at the outset of the hearing. After hearing evidence and submissions (on behalf of the appellant and the Home Office), the immigrations judge will usually delay the final judgment, which would be announced weeks later.

After court, I’ll often head back to Chambers to pick up papers for the next day as I don’t usually receive them until the day before the hearing, then I head home to prepare. I usually have other bits of drafting (grounds of appeal, judicial reviews, skeleton arguments etc.) to work on in-between time at the tribunal and preparing for the next day too.

The most important thing that I’ve learnt during my time working in immigration is that everyone has their own story. That means, in my opinion, it’s very difficult to hold any meaningful views about immigration simply by reading or listening to the news. A true understanding of someone else’s situation really cannot be properly understood until you’ve heard it from their perspective.

I have always been a big fan of Lord Pannick QC as ‘the’ public/administrative law lawyer, especially during the Brexit Miller cases against the government, where he rendered an impossibly complex issue into something anyone could understand. Michael Fordham QC is also a big inspiration as he literally wrote the book.

I didn’t always want to work in immigration, I fell into it completely by accident. I didn’t know a thing about immigration prior to starting pupillage at my chambers but I wouldn’t trade it in for any other area of law now I’m in it. I cannot imagine doing anything else now.

The highlight of my career so far was appearing in the Court of Appeal (Civil Division) as a junior in a substantive appeal before three judges of the court. To have that opportunity only three and a half years post obtaining tenancy is a real privilege. That was on a par with being invited to a client’s baby shower after a hearing in which she won her appeal on the spot (the type of thing that might only happen because of working in this area of law).

My top piece of advice for students considering law is to work out what your main motivation is and think about whether the area of law you choose will help fulfil that motivation.

If you’re looking to take your first steps towards a career in immigration law, check out our undergraduate law courses.