David Burgess was regarded as one of the finest immigration lawyers of his generation. The decisions he secured in the British courts and the European Court of Human Rights featured significant landmarks for the representation of asylum seekers and transgendered people.
Burgess had graduated from St Catharine’s College, Cambridge in 1969. He went on to co-found his own legal aid law firm, Winstanley Burgess solicitors, six years later. It was there, as senior partner, that he began to specialise in asylum work.
In 1987, a decision awarded in favour of 52 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers changed British law to allow asylum seekers the right to appeal against refusal of asylum before having to leave the country. Before that no such right was guaranteed. In 1991 he took up the cause of “M”, a Zairean asylum seeker, and brought contempt proceedings against Kenneth Baker, the Tory Home Secretary. The victory was described by one of the leading experts in academic law, Professor Sir William Wade, as the most significant constitutional case for more than 200 years.
His first victories in securing full legal rights for transgendered clients were equally ground breaking. In the 1980s he represented a female-to-male trans client, Mark Rees, who wished to have the gender on his birth certificate altered. He campaigned for the right of Stephen Whittle, a female-to-male trans parent, to be legally recognised as the father of his children.
In 2005, Burgess separated from his wife of 20 years, with whom he had three children, and began the transition from David to Sonia. She continued to work as a lawyer under the name David, but lived thereon as Sonia.
Sonia Burgess died in 2010 after she was pushed from the platform at King’s Cross under an approaching tube train. Senthooran Kanagasingham, who lived as Nina and was awaiting gender reassignment surgery, was charged with Burgess’ murder and jailed for life. After the verdict, Sonia’s daughter, Dechen Burgess, told the court, “She was trying to help Nina. Ideally we would like Nina to recognise the harm she has done to many lives, but we hope she can one day reach such a place so she can live life in fullness as our father would have wanted.”