Attorney Shalini Sankar has been blessed with many opportunities and successes in life, so she has been paying it forward.
At the moment, about 30 per cent of the 37-year-old attorney’s cases are pro bono for nationals and non-nationals alike. She assesses their ability to afford representation, whether they could go to Legal Aid, if the need is urgent, and the impact the matter could have on the client.
Also, for the past six months, she has been part of the Community Justice Clinic where attorneys partner with the Police Service to provide free legal services to people in 13 communities around the country.
Sankar attended St Joseph’s Convent, San Fernando before receiving her first degree in business management at UWI. She then went on to study law at the University of Law in Birmingham, England and BPP University Law School in London.
She recalled during her first year at UWI no women were running for guild president, so she decided to step up and make a difference. However, the process soon became very political. She even received threats and eventually withdrew her candidacy.
“That’s when I realised that politics wasn’t for me. I don’t see politics as positive change. I find it’s too aggressive in TT. So my life goal is to be a judge and create change that way.”
She enrolled in UWI’s mentorship programme and was paired with former deputy CEO of First Citizens Bank, attorney Sharon Christopher who, Sankar said, guided her career, introduced her to people, and allowed her to participate in implementing Occupational Safety and Health Act compliance in FCB branches.
While waiting for her acceptance to law school she worked in Probation Services at the Ministry of Social Development.
One case that stuck with her over the years was that of a woman who was about to lose her child because she had a latrine rather than a toilet. The woman had planned to sign over her land to a lawyer to get help.
“I just took my salary and gave it to her. It was the first time it hit me, the level of poverty in TT. I realised the money I might spend in food is the money someone might need to make a real difference in their lives. To see someone having to sacrifice so much to get access to legal justice, it just doesn’t make sense.”
Since then, whenever she is aware of vulnerable people in the justice system, she attempts to assist.
Then, while studying in England, she trained with several queen's counsels and was involved in a mock trial where the winner would meet the Queen, which she did on June 17, 2012, along with Princes Andrew and Phillip.
“I consider myself to be very blessed. I feel like my path in life is to give back to people and my country. To be able to give back as much as I get is something that I enjoy doing. It has really been great so far.”
Fight for human rights
Since graduating from law school in 2014, Sankar has practised all areas of law including family, corporate, employment and her most recent passion, immigration and refugee law.
She considers herself a human rights activist who has always wanted to help people with her knowledge. Her empathy moved her to help her first asylum-seeker clients in 2017.
She recalled that she was at the Magistrates Court and seated nearby were three Venezuelan men she had noticed several times before. They were barefooted, in short pants, scared and confused.
The magistrate asked for legal representation for them but Legal Aid refused to represent them because, at the time, it was not a service extended to non-nationals.
“It was frustrating to the court because they didn’t have a translator, legal representation, they didn’t understand what was happening to them so they couldn’t give instructions and they were just in jail.”
So she decided to represent them pro bono.
She contacted a client who spoke Spanish fluently and asked her to translate. She found out the men were charged for illegal entry and they were claiming asylum.
She is now with Allum Chambers in Port of Spain but, at the time, she was not with a firm and so had more free time. She went to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to find out more and was directed to an office where people from the Living Water Community were helping around 35 Spanish-speaking people register for asylum.
The Habitat for Humanity UK website explains that refugees are people fleeing armed conflicts or persecution. An asylum seeker is someone who claims to be a refugee but whose claim has not yet been evaluated. So, while every refugee was initially an asylum seeker, not every asylum seeker will be recognised as a refugee.
Sankar added that refugees have to wait for resettlement to another country as TT does not offer resettlement.
“I started to realise that a lot of non-nationals were coming into the country and they didn’t know the laws of the country, how to approach the system; they didn’t understand what was happening in immigration, they had no access to legal justice whatsoever.
“So I stepped up and said, ‘Ok. I’m going to help you all. If any Spanish-speaking nationals come before the court, you’ll tell me and I will be there.”
By that time there was an influx of people being charged by the Immigration Division so she got some colleagues who were willing to help. Between her research and some training from the attorneys at Living Water, they all came up with different plans of action to deal with different systems and situations.
“Refugee law is not in our domestic law so if you are charged with illegal entry, the court is mandated to look at our domestic law. Obviously, it’s a crime and it says you should be fined or imprisoned.
“If you’re entering illegally it’s one thing but if you did it to claim asylum because you have a fear of returning to your country, that’s a different scenario. To be able to differentiate that in the court, I had to do more research.
“I started to look at English and Commonwealth cases, at how the refugee legislation could have been implemented in TT law, even though it had not properly been put into domestic law as yet.”
She and her team gave submissions to the court to show how the UK used the principles behind the international legislation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which TT is a signatory, even before the Human Rights Act was officially integrated into the system.
They also explained to the judges the asylum process, who they should talk to at the UNHCR, and contact information so they could find other ways of dealing with refugees rather than placing them in holding for extended periods.
Living Water and the UNHCR also started training judicial officers on refugee law and the asylum process so they could have a better understanding about what was happening in the country.
Their efforts resulted in a representative from immigration being present in court at all times, and relatively consistent access to interpreters at court. Now, in TT, when asylum seekers are charged with illegal entry, magistrates generally consider the submissions and act accordingly.
Sankar added that in 2014, the government created a policy to implement refugee law in TT but nothing has been settled. As a result, standard operating practices are being implemented into domestic law through case law.
She therefore encourages clients to go to court with their matters instead of settling out of court so a precedent could be set and introduced as case law.
“What happens is we can’t work without instructions and most times these persons are very scared, very vulnerable. Once they are not in jail or IDC (Immigration Detention Centre), they just count their blessings. They don’t want to continue with an action in court because they don’t understand the benefit of doing it.”
So she took the time to become versed in immigration law even though some of her colleagues said she was wasting her time because it was taking up too much of her time and she was not getting paid.
However, she said the knowledge has assisted her with paying clients and helped improved local systems.
She gave the example of February 2021 when around 90 Venezuelans were deported via plane. She said she heard rumours about the move the day before and made some calls to government officials who denied it was happening as they had not been informed.
Some of the Venezuelans were asylum seekers, her clients, and they were forced to sign documents. She said the UNHCR had to call its Caracas office to see how they could help asylum seekers because deportees cannot re-enter the country without the permission of the National Security Minister.
“Because they now know that persons in Venezuela still have access to phones and can contact us, now, with deportation, the government knows to check to ensure the person is not an asylum seeker, that they are voluntarily departing, that an interpreter is present, and there is a witness to the signing of documents.”
Inclusion is necessary
June 20 is International Refugee Day and this year’s theme is inclusion.
As she has done before, Sankar and several of her friends intend to distribute school supplies to children and food hampers to refugee families.
“There has been a lot of negativity surrounding asylum seekers and Venezuelan nationals in particular. It has caused a lot of fear and mistrust. Some people think they have bad motives. That’s made it really hard for them to be able to access food, housing, healthcare, or anything they need to do to survive.
“I think it’s important for us, as people, to remember to help our brother and sister. You don’t need to gain something by helping but you never know how they could help you in the future.”
She said TT needs better systems to ensure inclusivity which could benefit locals as well. For example, she said if Spanish-speaking children could have access to primary school education, local children could be exposed to Spanish and become bi-lingual.
She too has received unexpected benefits. In 2019 the US Embassy recognised she was trying to make a difference and sent her to the International Visitor Leadership Program.
It is a programme for emerging leaders around the world with past participants such as former prime minister Patrick Manning, former AG Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, and former UK PM Tony Blair.
There, she and the other participants visited different states in the US where they met and trained with justices, NGOs and other influential individuals from across the globe.
“It was to formulate more unity and to see how best we could help each other as we continue to assist our countries in various fields.”
She also thanked the UNHCR for their support as they provided her with opportunities to learn more about local and international refugee law.