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Rob Fenn

Head of Human Rights and Democracy Department, FCO

17th April 2013 London, UK

Common Law

Do you know what QC stands for? And why Queen Elizabeth I coined the term?

My sister-in-law, Poonam Melwani QC, came to Brunei last week on holiday. Like many successful women, she seems able to switch like lightning between a host of different roles.

She appeared first as a rainforest explorer. At the Ulu Ulu Resort we climbed the canopy walkway in the hush before dawn – with six loud boys (four of hers, two of ours).

Group photo with Poonam & the boys

Kit & Poonam

Back in Bandar, she became a more conventional tourist: we have a photo of her reclining by the pool at the Empire Hotel. At other moments she was a “Soccer Mum”, refereeing on the lawn at the High Commission Residence.

Her most dramatic change of gear was from holiday-maker garb into the business attire she wore for a visit to the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC). Poonam is a “Queen’s Counsel” at the Commercial Court in London.

The idea for her talk came from the AG herself, Datin Hayati (another multi-tasking woman). I conspired to interrupt Poonam’s holiday this way because the Common Law legacy which Britain and Brunei share is one of the most important ties which bind our countries; and the one we most often take for granted.

Poonam asked if any of us in the audience knew where the title QC came from. She explained that it dates back to the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603), who bestowed it on the brilliant barrister Sir Francis Bacon; mainly, it seems, as a way to ensure he appeared in court only as “Counsel” for the Crown.

There are plenty of women at the English Bar, but nothing like the proportion of female lawyers here in Brunei. After meeting her sisters in the AGC (“All Girls’ Chambers”?), Poonam praised the way the legal profession here has made room for motherhood. In fact, I don’t think she had ever met a female colleague with more children than she. The moderator had twice as many!

The thing which impressed me most was how lawyers in UK and Brunei have the same focus on the economic benefits of efficient justice. The English courts don’t pretend to be the only way to settle a dispute; or that the justice they dispense is “better” than in other jurisdictions. But they do claim to be especially successful at adapting to the ever-changing needs of the communities they serve. The system they stand for is ancient, but their methods are cutting-edge.

The English courts illustrate a point we make often in the High Commission – that the UK can do Tradition and Innovation equally well. The Common Law unites the countries of the Commonwealth, enabling them to differ in their systems of government, while sharing notions of justice fundamental to all successful states. Brunei’s Common Law legacy allows the Sultanate to have the best of both worlds.

About Rob Fenn

Rob Fenn has been Head of the FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy Department since March 2014. His last formal responsibility for human rights was in the mid 1990s, when he…

Rob Fenn has been Head of the FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy Department
since March 2014. His last formal responsibility for human rights was in
the mid 1990s, when he served as UK Delegate on the Third Committee of
the General Assembly in New York (with annual excursions to what was
then the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva). Recent celebrations of
the twentieth anniversary of the creation of the post of UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights – a resolution he helped pilot through the
GA – came a shock. The intervening 20 years have flown: in Rome
(EU/Economics), in London (Southern European Department), in Nicosia
(Deputy High Commissioner) and latterly in Bandar Seri Begawan.
Julia and their two sons loved Brunei, where British High Commissioners
are made especially welcome. The family’s activities included regular
walks in the pristine rainforest, expeditions upriver to help conserve
the Sultanate’s stunning biodiversity, and home movie making (in Brunei
it is almost impossible to take a bad photograph).
all those saturated colours, Rob worried that the move back to Britain
might feel like a shift into black and white. But the reunion with
family, friends and colleagues, and the boys’ brave reintegration into a
North London school, have been ample compensation. Julia’s main regret
is that, now she walks on Hampstead Heath, she no longer has an excuse
to carry a machete (“parang”).
problem is summed up in two types of reaction from friends outside the
office. On hearing that he is “in charge of human rights and democracy
at the FCO”, some think it sounds like a vast job: what else is there?
Others think it sounds wishy-washy: not in the national interest. Rob’s
mission is to take the Foreign Secretary’s dictum that “our values are
our interests”, and help his colleagues translate it into action in a
world so varied it can contain both Brunei’s clouded leopard and the
civil war in Syria.

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