Last October, detectives were called to investigate the death of a woman under a London tube train. But as they traced her final moments, they discovered that she was, in fact, David Burgess, one of the most brilliant immigration lawyers of his generation. Here, Burgess's family and friends tell, for the first time, the complicated story of the loving father, brilliant colleague, sensitive woman and courageous person they knew
On an autumn evening last October, a slight, pretty woman with a mass of curly hair fell underneath a tube train during rush hour at King's Cross underground station. The driver of the eastbound Piccadilly Line train applied the brakes as soon as he saw the woman lose her balance, but a whole carriage passed along the platform before the vehicle shuddered to a halt. It was shortly after 6.30pm on 25 October when the British Transport Police started trying to recover the body, a gruesome task that lasted late into the night.
The line was closed, the platform cleared. London's Underground network was severely disrupted as commuters struggled to make their way home. And yet, in the sprawling urban mass of the capital, many of those passengers – crushed against each other in scarves and coats, clutching their copies of the Evening Standard and adjusting their iPods – probably reflected that, depressing though it might be, a person throwing themselves in front of a tube train was not particularly out of the ordinary.
But all was not as it seemed. The ensuing media coverage revealed that the police suspected that the woman had not fallen but had been pushed by her 34-year-old female companion, who was later charged with murder. It then turned out that the woman who died, 63-year-old Sonia Burgess, was living a double life. Once the police had established her identity (from her railcard), it was discovered that Sonia was biologically a man – a man named David Burgess, one of the finest immigration lawyers of his generation, a man responsible for a succession of trailblazing judgments in the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights.
"Then a friend rang to tell me it was Sonia," she says. "I couldn't believe it. You never think it would be somebody you know, or even that they might have been pushed. It's a horribly violent way to die, isn't it? Living and working in London, you hear of it all the time – those delays because somebody is on the line – and often you think, 'Oh, why did they do that? What was going on?'" She pauses to fiddle with the handle of her latte cup, letting the thought dissolve into the air like a pricked bubble. Many of Sonia's friends found the media interest difficult to stomach, especially because some newspapers used the male pronoun to refer to Burgess in spite of the fact that he had chosen to live as a woman.
"Things like that can be very hurtful in the transgender community," says Beardsley. "It was only when I read an obituary that I learned about Sonia's professional history. She had this diffidence about her, an empathy for other people. She never said to me, 'By the way, do you know I've been dealing with all these high-profile legal cases?' She just said she was a human-rights lawyer. I just knew her as someone who was fun to be around: loving, sensitive, aware, in the present moment… a deep thinker, and, of course," Beardsley adds with a chuckle, "very fashionable. She had a very good eye for clothes. When I met her, she was almost apologetic that she still worked as a male."
But it was as a man that this self-effacing individual had, indeed, made legal history. As Beardsley was shortly to discover, Burgess had graduated in law from St Catharine's College, Cambridge in 1969 and gone on to co-found his own legal aid law firm, Winstanley Burgess solicitors, six years later. As senior partner, he began to specialise in asylum work.
In 1987, Burgess acted on behalf of a group of 52 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers who were refused entry at the UK border and threatened with deportation. In an article written after his death, Frances Webber, then a junior barrister, remembers being asked by Burgess "to run across to the High Court to get an injunction to prevent [their] removal… When I say 'run', I mean it literally – immigration officials were escorting the Tamils to the plane, and they, hearing of David's efforts, decided to help by stripping off on the tarmac. We got our injunction – but eventually the men's judicial review claims were rejected and they were sent back to Sri Lanka. David didn't give up."
The rest of the article at The Guardian