An interview with Honza Cervenka
How important is activism and what does it mean to you?
Activism is at the heart of why I became a lawyer. Activists tend to be practical people, and as a civil litigator I get to address concrete cases of injustice. I have always preferred specifics to abstractions; finding the best way to help a client get justice feels more tangible theoretical discussions.
Civil litigation is really the sweet spot between being a lawyer and an activist. We are looking to hold organisations accountable, but we root that accountability in the specific facts of a person or group who suffered harm. The goal for us is to win compensation for our clients, but the way we approach litigation often causes the organisation to reflect on whether its policies and practices were adequate. That means we can focus on a concrete case of injustice while also helping to improve the lives of those who are not our clients.
Can we use the law effectively as a tool for activism?
The law is a strange beast, especially in common law jurisdictions. Lawyers look to cases from a year, five years or even a century ago to demonstrate the truth of their arguments, and there is an inherent conservatism to the system. However, we can respect precedent and the rulings of the past without losing sight of the present.
This is especially true my work, which deals with discrimination, sexual harassment, and consent. To be discriminated against or sexually harassed meant something very different in 1980 than it does today. Any attempt at activism within the law needs to make it very explicit that the world changes even when the law does not.
Tell us about a career milestone / case that will stay with you forever.
On a personal level, qualifying as a lawyer in the US meant a lot to me. US litigation tends to be more explicitly adversarial and feels like more of a spectacle, primarily due to the substantial amounts of money involved.
In terms of cases, I am especially proud of helping to win damages for Sandeep and Reena Mander after they were turned away from their local adoption agency because of their Indian heritage. The case ended in a victory for our clients and encouraged local councils to apply fairer and more equal standards when assessing prospective adopters. It was also a case that taught me the importance of sticking to your convictions in a litigation. What seemed like a clear-cut case of discrimination (as it ultimately proved to be) was muddied over the course of a lengthy legal battle. I started working on the case as a trainee and was already an associate by the time it reached trial. Over the course of many months, I learnt that even when a case appears to be crystal clear the opposing party may attempt to obfuscate, manipulate, and alter narratives.
Outside court, I have been very fortunate to help shape legislation and policy by presenting evidence to both The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (ICSA) and the Law Commission’s Consultation on Image Abuse. At ICSA I represented activist Manny Waks and Kol v’Oz (now VoiceCSA), an Israel-based organization dedicated to combating child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community. That foray into public law helped us to shine a light on the many structural problems that prevent religious organisations from adequately responding to reports of sexual abuse.
My work with the Law Commission was part of a substantial multi-year project reviewing the laws on taking, making and sharing intimate images without consent. I made efforts to encourage a focus on LGBTQ-specific issues, particularly in cases involving intimate image abuse. The data clearly shows that the Queer community is one of the most vulnerable groups, and that the threat of involuntary outing based on sexual orientation or gender identity is a significant concern to Queer people. I felt it was essential for the Law Commission to acknowledge that the law must represent and protect all communities. I continue to focus on addressing "harmful but legal" acts, drawing on the experiences and testimonies of my clients to advocate for broader legal change.
Does your current practice/organisation specialise in campaigning / representing clients in a specific area, and if so, how did you get involved in this area?
McAllister Olivarius is a proudly feminist firm. Throughout our history we have focused on supporting victims and survivors of all forms of abuse, harassment and discrimination while bringing those responsible to justice. Last year we launched Queer Rights Lawyers, a practice that provides specialised advice to members of the LGBTQ+ community. In many ways, this is a natural extension of the firm’s values, but it goes beyond branding. The issues faced by members of the Queer community are often very nuanced and complicated, and I felt it was necessary to develop a dedicated practice that can speak to some of those issues.
What is the most important change to the law that you feel needs to be addressed now?
Overall, our existing laws are not terrible; in fact, some are quite good. However, the challenge lies in translating those laws into the real-world outcomes we expect. A good law that remains inaccessible is almost as detrimental to society as a bad law.
Justice is not only about what the law says or how the courts interpret those laws, but about the ability of people to secure their rights. I've encountered far too many victims of crime who feel that the legal system is fundamentally broken, that the police will not take their complaints seriously, that there is no realistic prospect of ever bringing their abuser to court. This applies to a much wider range of issues, including gender assignment and self-identification. Whatever flaws we may find with legislation pale in comparison to the multi-year backlog that individuals face when seeking access to essential treatments and services.
The notion that a new law will instantaneously revolutionise everything is rather naive. Real change only occurs when people can effectively enforce these laws. This is a crucial aspect that the legal profession must address.
What advice do you have for anyone interested in getting involved in your line of work?
In civil litigation, the human aspect of the law is considerably more pronounced. Litigation can be an exhausting marathon, and it's common for clients to become fatigued and seek a way out, especially in cases involving abuse, discrimination, or harassment. Many of my clients have experienced trauma, and each stage of the legal process may trigger painful memories. What may be a straightforward conversation for me can be very challenging for them. Even tasks as routine as reviewing a draft or witness statement can force clients to relive traumatic experiences. It's important to be prepared for the emotional toll that litigation can take on both you and your clients.
You also need to bear in mind also that many clients will not be familiar with the civil legal system, and it is important to move slowly and explain how the process works. In my experience, many clients are also likely to have had negative experiences with the law or law enforcement in the past. This can be especially problematic in cases like intimate image abuse. The police have the power to seize electronic devices and conduct investigations, but it's rare for clients to trust the police or find them helpful. This creates a challenging situation where the most theoretically sound solutions may not be practical. Figuring out how to explain this, and finding alternative approaches, is a skill not typically taught in law school.
About Honza Cervenka: Honza is a solicitor of England & Wales and a California attorney. He is recognised as a leading figure in the field of online reputation and privacy and is frequently asked to speak on the legal challenges facing victims of online harassment and image-based sexual abuse. At McAllister Olivarius, Honza works on a wide variety of cases on both sides of the Atlantic, including civil, employment, and data protection litigation in the UK, and Title VII and Title IX discrimination cases in the US. He is also head of Queer Rights Lawyers, a practice dedicated to serving the LGBTQ+ community.