Oration given on 20 July 2007 by Professor Kevin Boyle, Department of Law
Chancellor, the University of Essex Foundation has determined that Yasmin Waljee shall be the recipient of the Alumnus of the Year Award for 2007.
Chancellor, I fear that you and the audience may have heard enough from me but I have the good fortune that the Alumnus of the Year is a graduate of the Human Rights Centre.
Yasmin Waljee graduated from Essex in 2003 with an MA in the Theory and Practice of Human Rights being awarded a pass with distinction. Yasmin chose to study for this postgraduate degree at the Centre over several years because she was also working as a solicitor for a large, London-based law firm – Lovells. So far so normal. Many, if not most of our law graduates aspire to make their fame and fortune working with large city firms but Yasmin’s career was to be different. Having joined Lovells, she was approached in 1997 with a three-line job description of a new post the firm wanted to establish. That of pro bono officer. Pro bono work means providing free legal advice and representation in courts to those who cannot pay or cannot obtain state legal aid. And it’s a tradition in the legal profession to take up some work without charge. But Lovells proposal was much more radical. It wanted to make pro bono work a major part of the firm’s activity, ultimately involving all its staff. Yasmin, who had a career of Human Rights activism from her undergraduate days at Durham, seized the opportunity with characteristic enthusiasm. Even while studying the theory at Essex, she was busy building what has become an extraordinary national and international pro bono programme providing free, fifteen thousand hours of legal advice to over two hundred charities and individuals a year. How does she do it? How do you mobilise lawyers who are always under pressure to remember the bottom line? Her answer – keep smiling, keep networking, find the lawyer for the job, carry them along on a wave of enthusiasm and conviction that everybody has a right to access justice. Yasmin has been long personally involved in working for prisoners on death row in the Caribbean and on behalf of British nationals detained aboard, often facing the death penalty.
At home, here in Britain, she set up the Asian Lawyers Society helpline through which specialist lawyers and interpreters on call give free advice to ethnic minorities. Yasmin has also developed programmes within her firm to seek injunctions for victims of domestic violence, working with the national centre for domestic violence. And in addition, a programme to provide advocates for those facing eviction. And she has been active as a lawyer in helping victims of terrorism including those of the seven July bombings in London to obtain compensation. She is also deeply involved on issues of the human rights responsibilities of companies and businesses and is a Director of the Corporate Social Responsibility Group. Yasmin knows that progress in advancing human rights protection in our complex world is measured not in kilometres, or even metres but millimetres! But with her boundless enthusiasm and conviction, she has made a difference in the lives of many vulnerable and powerless individuals both in Britain and aboard.
Amazingly, Yasmin finds time for other interests and passions. She is a keen footballer and a Manchester United supporter, as well as being a poet. And she and her husband, Gregor, have now another precious preoccupation, their first child Angus Koreen (both are here somewhere – I think).
In 2000, Yasmin was named by The Times as Woman Solicitor of the Year and in 2005 she was shortlisted for the Asian Woman of Achievement Awards. Now it is our turn to recognize her achievement as our Alumnus of the Year 2007.
Chancellor, I present Yasmin Waljee.