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How I Made It

Toby Cadman, International Criminal Law Barrister How I Made It

Toby Cadman, International Criminal Law Barrister
“You need to have a very thick skin.”

Specialising in international criminal law, Toby Cadman has represented clients all over the world, from Bosnia to Bangladesh. His first job in the legal profession was as an international human rights lawyer in Sarajevo. Since then he has established himself as an expert barrister in the areas of war crimes, extradition and human rights law. Here Toby tells us about his most challenging cases to date, the dangers of working in international criminal law, and what it takes to become a successful human rights lawyer…


I actually had a number of different careers before I became a barrister. I worked as a photographer for a few years, and then I worked for a portfolio investment firm who wanted me to do a business degree. I enrolled at the University of Northampton and studied business for one year, but absolutely hated it.

I really enjoyed the legal aspects of the course though, so I transferred onto the LLB course at the end of my first year. As soon as I started studying law, I decided that I wanted to become a barrister.

Falling into human rights law

I did a human rights module when I was at Northampton, but I pretty much fell into this area of law. My wife is from Bosnia and we met whilst I was at university. We were both working in the same restaurant in Northampton. She was from Sarajevo, but had been living in England for several years as a political refugee.

In 1999, just after we’d got married, we decided to go to Bosnia for Christmas so that I could meet my in-laws for the first time. Whilst we were there, I met a Bosnian human rights lawyer who asked me if I was interested in working in Bosnia.

First of all, I had to come back to England and do my Bar Vocation Course (BVC), as it was known then. I finished my BVC in July 2001 and went to Bosnia in February 2002. I applied for a scholarship and got a secondment through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Originally, I agreed to go to Bosnia for six months, but I ended up staying there for eight years.

A human rights court was set up in Bosnia, very much along the same lines as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, to deal with post-conflict human rights violations. Each team was set up with a Bosnian lawyer and an international lawyer. I was recruited as an international lawyer and worked for two years in that position.

Becoming a war crimes specialist

In the last four months of my work at the human rights court, I became increasingly involved with war crimes cases. As a result, I was recruited to work for the Office of the High Representative to advise on setting up a war crimes court. My initial role involved setting up the Prosecutor’s Office, recruiting all of the staff, drawing up the rules of procedure, and then acting as a criminal adviser to the chief prosecutor.  

However, when the war crimes court was actually established, I was asked to head up the Criminal Defence Office. I did that for a year, before being asked to go back and head up the prosecution, which I did for five more years.

The role involved doing a lot of research and working as part of an investigation team. The day-to-day challenges were always different. I’d be working on a case one day, and the next day I’d have to go and speak at a conference on behalf of the Bosnian Prosecutor’s Office.

From war crimes to organised crime

After I decided to leave the Prosecutor’s Office, I was looking for a short-term assignment. The European Union Police Mission in Sarajevo was looking for a lawyer who was experienced in war crimes and organised crime.

Consequently, I was selected to be one of the senior lawyers that would be responsible for coordinating organised crime investigations in Bosnia. As part of that, I had to draw up a strategy and draft a law on the use of DNA evidence in criminal proceedings.

Back to Blighty

I lived and worked in Bosnia for eight years and I absolutely loved it. However, by 2009, I realised that I really wanted to do trial work. Therefore, I came back to London, and I was invited to join Nine Bedford Row. One of my colleagues who I’d worked with abroad, Joanna Korner QC, recommended that I apply for her chambers. I did, and now I’m one of the most successful members of the international practice group.

Once I’d joined Nine Bedford Row, my senior clerk recommended that I do a seven month secondment with the Crown Prosecution Service on extradition work. The idea was to establish myself as a specialist extradition prosecutor, and extradition cases now account for around 20-30% of my work.

Variety, travel & satisfaction

What I find most satisfying about my job is that no two days are the same. I was in Dubai last week meeting with a client. When I came back I was in the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court prosecuting on an Albanian extradition case. Next week I’m off to Indonesia to speak at the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. They have a human rights meeting in Jakarta, and I’m going there to speak about Bangladesh.

Constant travelling can be difficult because I have a young family, but the work is extremely rewarding. It can also be dangerous, though. For example, in August, I was stopped at the border in Bangladesh, detained for ten hours and thrown out of the country.

A thick skin is essential

The majority of the cases I’ve worked on to date have involved war crimes, drug trafficking, human trafficking, murder, rape and violent crime. When you see the levels to which humankind will descend and you see the atrocities, you need to have a very thick skin.

Not wanting to speak too graphically, but the first time I watched a video of somebody’s head being decapitated, I didn’t sleep properly for about two weeks. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. But then, when you realise you’re doing this job for justice, you just learn to deal with it. I wouldn’t say that you ever become completely cold and oblivious to it, but you do learn to cope.

Pro bono work abroad

I do pro bono work in foreign jurisdictions for two reasons. Firstly, the kind of work I do offers me a salary which allows me to take on cases that I truly believe in, without really being too concerned about whether I’m being paid or not. For example, I do a lot of work on the current Syria crisis, acting for victims, which is very, very rewarding.

Secondly, when you do this kind of work, you have to do a certain amount of pro bono because it can lead to other opportunities. I wouldn’t say that I do it purely out of the goodness of my own heart; although, obviously, that is an aspect of it.

Most challenging cases

The most challenging case I’m working on currently is a civil action against President Bashar al-Assad from Syria. He’s being sued under US legislation for atrocities in Syria, where the victims are American citizens or have a connection to the US. Understandably, it’s a very difficult case to get moving.

Apart from that, the most difficult case I’ve ever worked on was just after I’d finished my secondment with the Crown Prosecution Service. Dr Ejup Ganic, the former president of Bosnia, was arrested in London, and I was part of the prosecution team that had to prosecute him for his extradition to Serbia. That was an extremely difficult case; primarily because my wife’s family still lives in Bosnia and it’s a very volatile subject. It was a very difficult case to handle for many different reasons.

Advice for aspiring human rights lawyers

If you want to work in international human rights law, you have to be able to adapt to different cultures and it’s obviously a plus if you can speak more than one language.

Most importantly, though, you need to have a lot of dedication. In the early days, for instance, you have to do plenty of pro bono work.

Finally, you need a lot of luck, and you need to make use of that luck. I’ve been extremely lucky in the opportunities that I’ve been given. The eight years I spent in Bosnia have given me everything that I have now. It really shows that going out there and taking a chance is the way to enter this profession.

By Toby Cadman as told to AllAboutCareers

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