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Thursday, July 18, 2024
PeopleSamantha Knights

Samantha Knights

Samantha Knights KC focuses on immigration and asylum, public law, human rights, international law and commercial litigation. She spoke to Fergus Byrne

‘At heart I am a nomad—as happy in the city as rural idyll, and probably never happier than when roaming. I thrive on people, places, and ideas of all kinds. I was born in Wimbledon in 1971. We were living in a flat on Wimbledon Common and my wonderful parents were really passionate about growing their own food, perhaps inspired by the TV show The Good Life, but it wasn’t going to happen in our fifth-floor flat. And so began the migration south. By the time I was five we were living in Sussex and had a third of an acre. We later moved to where they had some more land and they started to create what is now an incredibly beautiful and mature garden with over 100 trees, lots of winter colour shrubs, and fruits and vegetables. Dad set up what was then a pioneering Horsham Organic Gardeners’ Society (HOGS).

So my younger sister and I grew up with a lot of home grown food as well as tales from a journey they took from London to Kabul before I was born. Our childhood was pretty free range. At weekends and after school in the summer as children we roamed about in a neighbourhood pack on bikes, on foot and came back at dark or when we were hungry. We didn’t travel abroad much when I was younger but had summer holidays at Rinsey Cove in Cornwall with family friends. And then when I was 10 (and my younger sister eight) they took us out of school and we did a month’s road trip all over the West United States. It triggered a love of exploring things new.

I went to an array of schools. My middle school (now failed and closed) was quite a bohemian sort of environment—40 kids in the class with an enormous range of learning styles, quite left-wing. I remember we had an African supply teacher that came for a whole term to get us to make mud huts—lessons never forgotten. But after a few years, mud hut complete, I grew bored and my parents somewhat reluctantly put me into a private girls school in Surrey where I stayed until O-levels (fortunately for them on a full scholarship).

It propelled me into a world of competitive sports and academics and many antics with an extremely spirited cohort of girls. It also sparked a contrarian gene in me with all its rules—some bordering on the completely absurd including that girls should not whistle at any time. At 16 I moved to a large and energetic state sixth form college. After the strictures of the girls’ school it was a breath of fresh air, but my grounding in languages and arts subjects stood me in good stead.
By this time I had started to get very interested in Soviet history (the idea of fomenting a revolution seemed light years away from the Sussex village where I was living). I was also unexpectedly exposed through my language teachers at the Sixth Form in leafy Godalming to Brecht, Sartre and de Beauvoir. It was an eye-opening period for me, combined with a pack of new friends, and Friday night trips (en masse as sixth formers like to be) to The Cider House.

After what seemed a lot of schooling, I was longing to venture forth. As friends drifted off to university or college, I managed to find a family of Russian scientists in Moscow who were keen to have an English ‘governess’. I had few relevant skills but with a crackling telephone line my failings on the Mary Poppins front were readily disguised, and in early 1990 I was on an Aeroflot flight into what turned out to be the embers of Soviet Russia. I had eight months living there, immersing myself in the language and exploring myriad places in the city—state museums, summer palaces, writers’ houses, parks, and the like. Wherever I went by metro, trolley bus or tram, my sturdy Timberland boots (which had to last like everything else for the entire stay) gave away my foreignness and I was always a source of great curiosity. I discovered many things including the student parties at Moscow State University and the common bond of a vodka and a Russian anecdote.

When I came back I spent a very fun three years reading history at Somerville College Oxford. I threw myself into college rowing, the student newspaper, and life—no doubt at the expense of my history studies. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it turned out there was rather a lot missing from the syllabus—no mention of slavery, little discussion generally of the negative side of Empire,, colonialism was taught through the prism of de-colonization, and the reading list barely strayed from white, male Oxford dons. But life there was all engaging. It was the age of Poll Tax riots and the Gulf War and American students’ fear of being conscripted. Three years flew by. What I really wanted to do at that time was to become a foreign correspondent. After more rejection letters than I care to remember for a graduate trainee scheme on a national newspaper, I applied for a job as a Business Editor at the Baltic Independent in Tallinn, Estonia. A door opened into one of the post-Soviet states and a new chapter of life. One of the stories that I was asked to cover by a prison guard with a conscience was about some Iraqi women and children that were in prison in the interior of Estonia. They turned out to be middle-class Iraqis fleeing from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. On their way to Sweden, the traffickers they had paid $10,000 a piece to had dumped them on the shores of Estonia. At the time I knew nothing about law nor the Refugee Convention, but it didn’t seem to me it was necessary to imprison them. I went away thinking they needed a lawyer, not a journalist.

I returned to the UK and to law school. I found studying law fascinating—a completely new language and way of looking at the world. I got a pupillage in a set of bankruptcy chambers, spent two years living in Bermuda on a billion dollar trust case which was before the Court there, and living one of the strangest periods of my life. Plucked from my very rooted 20-something life in London, thrust into a goldfish bowl of a life on an island the size of the Isle of Wight in the middle of the Atlantic, I spent weekends sailing or on a Cannondale bicycle as an antidote to the trial. I got stopped once for ‘speeding’ on my bike as the very low speed limits are fiercely policed. As seductive as island life can be, I longed for the grit of London life and to do something more people-orientated.

So, when I came back from Bermuda I headed off to SOAS and LSE on a part-time basis studying the areas of law that I wanted to practice in going forwards including refugee law and civil liberties, and minorities and the law. I then spent a year at Harvard writing a book on law and religion and during that year moved to Matrix chambers, a specialist human rights set. As I was entering the area of refugee law, lots of lawyers were leaving the field because of the legal aid cuts. The situation has only got a lot worse although there is an incredibly committed core of lawyers who continue to work in the field. Every case is different and every client unique. I started getting instructed in cases to do with national security and terrorism in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which is where I represented Shamima Begum recently. Since I became a Queen’s Counsel in 2018 (and now a KC) I do more appellate work where arguments generally turn on points of law. But there is nothing like arguing cases before the first instance tribunal which can lead to client’s being granted refugee or human rights protection where it should be given. I am currently involved in the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry which relates to what is one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in this country’s history.

I met my future husband—Bijan Omrani—on a rainy evening in London. He had just returned from Hong Kong. I was about to go to work on a rule of law project in Afghanistan and a friend put me in touch with Bijan as he had just written a book about the country. A spark ignited. We never imagined then we would be living in the South West full-time. But years later our flat in London had become more than a little cramped with two children (now aged 9 and 11), and a growing book collection (Bijan being a friend of almost any book). We came down to Shute, East Devon one summer to think about what to do, and Shute Primary scooped up our son and we never returned to live in London. And so began another episode: one with infinitely better air quality, a local beach, stunning countryside and a far more diverse collection of friends. Later added to by a Clovis—a two-year-old lurcher with a need for an early morning blast in the woods every day.

At first I was an anomaly: a lawyer based in rural Devon with cases in London. But of course in 2023 I am quite the norm with my office in the attic, new and improved broadband (cutting out BT) and only stranded now and again by an increasingly dismal train service. I wouldn’t swap our lives here for the city now. A day beginning walking in the woods and ending in a swim in the sea with work in between is a good one.

On a local level I have become very concerned about the state of our rivers and seas and how we can stop the gross polluting of them – the toxins from agriculture that run off and the raw sewage being repeatedly and regularly pumped into our oceans. There are some incredible local campaign groups who are becoming ever more active. But our laws are woefully inadequate to protect the environment, our regulators ineffective, and the government agencies responsible are doing far too little. The locao community here however is extremely motivated and collaboratively let’s see what can be done. If we can’t solve toxins and sewage being dumped in our oceans what hope do we have to solve the climate crisis?
As I have got older, increasingly I return to the things I loved as a child, especially reading and roaming; and a desire to explore different things. And so began Shute Festival, now in its eighth year which I co-founded with Bijan and writer and psychotherapist Paddy Magrane over a bottle of wine in 2016 in our house. Every time we finish the Festival we always feel completely shattered and vow it will be the last. And then as January unfolds, so does the longing to create a festival anew: to gather people, performers and musicians and bring on the conversations.’

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