Barrister, academic, mother and dedicated Bollywood fan, Usha Sood has many an accolade under her belt. The award-winning human rights lawyer has spent the past twenty years fighting for the legal rights of vulnerable people, taking on cases in everything from forced marriage and dowry abuse, to child abduction and immigration. A previous senior lecturer in law at Nottingham Trent University, she now practises at Trent Chambers. We nipped over to pick her very big brains...
You’ve dealt a lot in dowry cases...
Although it may occur more in South Asian or Middle Eastern families, dowry has genesis within Western culture. In South Asian culture, jewellery, clothing, and gifts are often abused by the in-laws or husband, who use it as a mechanism to demand more dowry, or retain it when a marriage breaks up. Women are being denied a right to their possessions and it’s an injustice to the bride and her family; people save for their daughter’s dowry from birth.
I did the first ever dowry case in the country. The husband’s family had already got rid of the dowry so she didn’t get her stuff back, but she got compensation. She knew it would all go to legal aid, but she wanted it to run as a case in principal. I’ve met many brave human beings who will strike a blow, not just for their individual circumstances, but for a wider cause.
What role has your faith played in your career?
I’m not a very religious person, but I do believe in the principles common to all faiths. I come from Malaysia, a country that is multi-religious; I know about Islam, Chinese beliefs, learned about Hinduism at home, and about Catholicism by attending a convent. My parents believed that the more you learnt about religions, the better. The Hindu faith is like a way of life; just do good and don’t hurt anybody.
I’m comfortable being of Indian origin and enjoy being able to wear a sari for work. I’m the only lawyer in the country that wears one in court, but I’m still in the same mode as everybody else. It’s not a reflection of your ability; it’s your persona and personality.
Could you tell us about the case of the seven refugee children?
In 1992, a local councillor knocked on my door with a child she’d found sheltering in a house with his mother and siblings. The father was being deported in a few days and she didn’t know what could be done. I taught public law, so I knew about deportation, but also about family law; I told her the solicitor should use something called wardship [proceedings to make the Court the legal guardian of a child].
During the initial meetings, one of the children said to me ‘’They’re going to send us to this place called India. Will they have neighbours there?’’ I said: ‘’Of course, every country has neighbours.’’ Then I realised he meant the television programme. It was very moving; I was thinking they’d be lucky to have a roof over their head, let alone a television set.
The solicitor wasn’t buying it, but in the end the mother said ‘’Just do it for the children.’’ Using a duty solicitor, we did it, and it’s been the only successful use of wardship in immigration law. A year after, the Home Office deported the mother, but the children were protected until they were adults. Barry Brazier, a local race equality campaigner, helped the children. Unfortunately he passed away, and his last words to the children were that I would make sure that their parents came home. I’d been given a mission, and I succeeded in getting the children’s parents back after 22 years. It’s the longest case I’ve ever done, and was one of the underlying cases that in 2009 lead to the government passing legislation that made children’s welfare important in immigration.
Are there any other cases that have had a big impact on you?
I did a case for a ninety-year-old Derbyshire man who wanted his wife to be allowed home from her care home from time to time. The case gathered a national profile because of the regulations the local authority had put into place; they’d been married for 68 years yet he was supervised in every visit, and wasn’t allowed to kiss her except for when he came and left.
I believe state intervention must have clear boundaries, and shouldn’t go into the private domain to that extent. When his wife passed away, they supervised his final visit to the body, and that broke my heart. We’ve done cases on Calais children, trafficking, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, child abduction and some other, very unusual cases. There’s that saying: “Truth can be stranger than fiction.” Sometimes I do think “this can’t be a real-life event” but it is.
What spurs you on?
Making a difference to situations. I couldn’t have kept going without this wonderful team around me; we’ve built up student research bases, had paralegals, interns and volunteers in. I don’t think there are any other chambers in the country with this level of support.
Do you ever regret your decision to move from classroom to courtroom?
Never. I enjoyed teaching, but even then I was a bit of a rebel. I would teach in a different way from the others, infusing it with a certain amount of realism. It meant my students were absorbed, but very often I was told off because I hadn’t quite finished the tutorial sheet or whatever. But they got good results, so I thought it didn’t matter.
Did you always know that law was for you?
When I came to the UK, I had an unconditional place to study English at Cambridge, but my dad persuaded me to apply to the University of Nottingham to study law instead. He said it was a tool I might be able to use later, so I followed his advice. I do still have a love for writing and might think about it if I stop active practice, but I understand that it was all meant to be. I’ve been here fifty years; I really love Nottingham.
A few years after arriving in the UK, I lost my mum and dad and I became the breadwinner for my siblings. I found Nottingham of great help and comfort, because the neighbours showed us how to manage. These are very British, white neighbours who gathered around and helped us out. It made me realise that it isn’t about where you are, it’s who’s around you that matters most.
How do you like to wind down?
I’m a hardcore Bollywood fan. The only place that streams Bollywood films in Nottingham is Cineworld, and some years ago they decided to stop showing them. I led a campaign that was in the Evening Post: “Human Rights Barrister Fights for the Return of Bollywood”. I couldn’t contemplate that they weren’t going to show any movies in Nottingham.
There was a whole group of us, and we got them to bring it back! The community may not have noticed some of the things I’ve done particularly, but somebody really elderly will come up to me and say “Bless you child, you got back movies for us!” For a lot of the elderly Asian community, that’s their sphere of enjoyment and to be deprived of it would have been a blow. But I did it for myself, really.
What advice do you give to any budding lawyers?
Do as many work placements as you can in different spheres of law, to work out whether you feel satisfied in this role. There’s no point in being in law if your aspirations and interests are not achieved. Find out if you have a passion for the job, which sphere gives you that passion, and then go for it.