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21 January 2016

Sonia Burgess (1947 – 2010) lawyer

David Burgess was born in Castleford, West Yorkshire. His mother was a secondary-school headmistress, but he never knew his father. He went to boarding school in Skipton, and then to Cambridge University where he met Robert Winstanley and gained an upper second in law in 1969. He was already openly bisexual.

In 1975 Winstanley Burgess Solicitors opened in offices above a pizza restaurant opposite Islington Town Hall. Burgess had already been doing voluntary work for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, and rapidly began to build his reputation in immigration law, working especially with Tamil and Kurd refugees, and the firm moved to larger offices.

Stephen Whittle describes a visit:
“I had expected a London lawyer to work in a fancy building, with polished furniture, and rich carpets. Instead I entered a dark, dingy, decaying building on the East London Road, where dirty magnolia woodchip papered stud wall partitions, with holes where they had been torn and kicked in frustration by the firm’s clients, and which looked as if they would collapse at any moment. Inside that den of iniquity, there seemed to be hundreds of grey people hanging out, hoping for a bob or two, or a cup of tea whilst they waited for the British Government to decide on their lives. Rarely did money change hands. Sonia, supported by her legal partner Robert Winstanley and backed by an army of pro-bono law students, mostly gave away her services.”
By this time Burgess was experimenting in going out as Sonia. For a while he had a relationship with a Chinese man, whom he took home to Castleford.

In 1979 Burgess acted on behalf of Mark Rees so that he could change his legal gender. This was taken as far as the European Court of Human Right (ECHR) in 1986, but his petition was finally denied.

In 1985 David married a Tibetan refugee who worked as a nurse. They had two children, and adopted the wife's 7-year-old niece. The wife knew of and accepted that David was also Sonia.

In 1987 a group of 52 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers were refused entry on arrival at the UK border. Burgess intervened to stop their deportation, using the only in-country legal remedy then available, a judicial review of the decision to reject the asylum claim. Burgess won the case in the court of appeal, but lost in the House of Lords, and the men were returned to Sri Lanka. The next year Burgess and a colleague travelled to Sri Lanka, traced the 52 men and documented the ill-treatment they had suffered since their return. This permitted an out-of-country appeal and the men were subsequently accepted as refugees and allowed into the UK. Burgess did lose this case when it reached the ECHR in 1991, but the case highlighted the inadequacy of judicial review being the only in-country challenge to a refusal of entry, and the law was later changed.

Burgess represented the Sri Lankan Viraj Mendis who sought sanctuary in the Church of the Ascension in Hulme, Manchester, before being deported in 1989.

In 1991 a Tibetan official who was visiting London as part of a Chinese delegation decided to defect and Burgess provided accommodation for several weeks until asylum was granted.

The same year, Burgess was brought in at the last moment in the case of M, a teacher from Zaire, who was actually on a plane at Heathrow and about to be deported. Burgess filed a new asylum application and understood that he had received an undertaking from the government solicitor that deportation would be stayed. Officials phoned Heathrow, but were put through to the wrong terminal, and M was flown to Zaire. On discovering this, Burgess phoned the judge at home at midnight, who ordered that arrangements be made to fly M back to the UK. However the Conservative Home Secretary Kenneth Baker interfered to cancel the arrangements. At this point M disappeared, probably fleeing to another African country. Burgess began contempt of court proceedings against the Home Secretary and pursued the case to the House of Lords, which ruled against the government. Baker was spared a fine, but was ordered to pay costs.
“It would be a black day for the rule of law and the liberty of the subject if ministers were not accountable to the courts for their personal actions”.
This has been described as the most significant constitutional case for 200 years in that no previous serving minister had been so chastised. In the House of Commons, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, and future leader of the Labour Party, criticized the Home Secretary for putting M's life at risk.

After the transsexual action group, Press For Change, was founded in 1992, Burgess acted as their solicitor.

However Burgess was first and foremost a human rights lawyer, and if she had transitioned at that time would have lost credibility and career.

In 1992 Burgess acted on behalf of Stephen Whittle's eldest child, referred to as 'Z' and argued that Stephen should be on her birth certificate as 'parent'. This took four years to get to the ECHR, and although they technically lost, the ECHR did recognise Stephen, his wife and children as a family.

In 1996 Burgess' partner, Robert Winstanley, who had specialised in criminal defence work, was made a judge. They parted on good terms, but Winstanley had been the more business oriented, and his departure coincided with government changes to legal aid that required more documentation that Burgess found irksome.

In that year Burgess acted for Karamjit Singh Chahal, an alleged Sikh militant facing deportation to India, where he claimed he would be at risk of torture. Burgess travelled to India and collected four volumes of cogent evidence, while the Attorney General had only a thin file of press cuttings. The ECHR ruled against deportation, that the risk of torture is absolute, even for those who may pose a security risk to the UK. This precedent prevented the deportation of accused terrorists rounded up after 9/11.

While David and wife had kept the existence of Sonia from the children, one night in a restaurant with another trans woman, Sonia realised that she had been recognised by another parent from her son's school. She forced herself to tell the son, and got the reaction:
“I thought you were really the most boring person I had ever known, thank god there is something interesting at last”.
After that the family was open and both as Sonia and David she was accepted. Sonia semi-transitioned in the early 2000s. By that time she was able to work part time, and was recognised by the courts as an expert in immigration law. Her appearance had become androgynous, and many lawyers and judges knew of her as Sonia.

However the firm was in financial problems and her back was giving her a bad time. The firm folded in 2003. Burgess was burned out from years of representing clients traumatised by rape and torture, and by the political and media abuse heaped on asylum seekers. He spent time in Tibet learning the language. After returning to the UK Mr and Mrs Burgess agreed to separate, and in 2008 they were divorced. A flat was found in Cambridge Circus, on the edge of Soho, where Sonia could be herself, and was considering facial surgery and breast implants.

Burgess did not stay away from refugee work, and began working for the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, and also for a law firm in north London, where her Sonia identity was an open secret.

Sonia met 34-year-old Nina (Senthooran) Kanagasingham, probably in a nightclub.. Nina was a trans asylum seeker from Sri Lanka who had been in the UK since 2000. On 25 October 2010 they were at Kings Cross tube station, after visiting Nina's doctor, when Tina, probably in despair at the inhumane immigration system, lashed out and Sonia was under the train.

Sonia's funeral was held at St Martin-in-the Fields, Trafalgar Square on 17 November, attended by around 600 persons, a mixture of lawyers, former asylum seekers and trans persons. The three children delivered a eulogy about the father they had known, slipping easily between female and male pronouns.

Kanagasingham was charged with murder, and remanded in Wandsworth men's prison.

Kanagasingham pleaded guilty to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility because of schizophrenia, and chose to be referred to as a man and by his male name during the trial. He was sentenced to life, and to serve a minimum of seven years.

He was sent to Belmarsh men's prison – one of the first trans prisoners to be housed in defiance of the New prison Guidelines of 2011, which said that those living as female should be sent to a woman's prison. In February 2015, he was found dead in his cell with a plastic bag around his head, and hands tied to the bed. At the inquest, nearby prisoners reported hearing cries for help.

 * David Burgess is apparently a common name for lawyers. Google brings up such in various English-speaking cities. There is a book, Fighting for Social Justice: The Life Story of David Burgess, but it is about the US labour activist.

Sheila Jeffreys, in her 2014 book, Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, p160-1, uses this case of all cases to raise alarm that Kanagasingham might be placed in a woman's prison.

The Evening Standard has two articles from February 2015 re the then ongoing inquest into Senthooran Kanagasingham's death, but I could not find any articles in the Standard or elsewhere re the conclusion of the inquest.

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