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High-profile lawyer awarded PhD at 63

18 July 2014

Lyndsey Boardman

Human rights lawyer Roger takes an ethical look at global DNA exchange

A human rights lawyer with 35 years’ international experience has been awarded a PhD at the age of 63 that he says has given his career a new lease of life.

Roger Chennells, from Stellenbosch, South Africa, has graduated from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) with a PhD looking at how DNA taken from indigenous people and used for research can be handled in an ethical manner; considering what benefits can be shared and addressing issues such as coercion and undue influence.

Roger, who has specialised in labour and human rights law since the early 1980s and worked on a number of high profile cases, has completed his full-time PhD through UCLan’s Centre for Professional Ethics with Professor Doris Schroeder.

He became interested in the ethical aspects of his area of law after he worked on a research project several years ago involving Nairobi sex workers who seemed to be immune to the HIV virus. Roger also represented the San (indigenous peoples of South Africa) in the 2003 landmark case looking at the rights of the San to benefit sharing for providing knowledge leading to a patent on the appetite-suppressant properties of the Hoodia plant.

“It’s been an incredible experience; at a time when many are coming to the end of their careers I’ve been given a whole new lease of life that will allow me to make a bigger difference through my work."

Roger’s PhD was funded by the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation that supports biomedical research and the medical humanities, and his studies will allow him to feed his results into policy making which in turn feeds into law. The father of five says the research he completed during his three years of study at UCLan is more rewarding than taking cases to court because of the level of impact he can have.

Roger, who is a Founding Partner of Chennells Albertyn Attorneys in Stellenbosch, said: “I’ve worked in law for several decades and I have been given several awards nationally and internationally but this PhD has made me look at my work from an entirely different perspective, it’s like I’ve had a career change. It’s been an incredible experience; at a time when many are coming to the end of their careers I’ve been given a whole new lease of life that will allow me to make a bigger difference through my work."

“I often work with vulnerable people who have a unique way of life. There are still a lot of unanswered questions when we consider what is ethically acceptable when taking DNA from people in the developing world and using it for research and now I’m not just able to help people in a local court but on an international scale.”

Roger has assisted the San for over a decade. He has acted for the San and other indigenous communities in several internationally known cases where their traditional knowledge of medicinal plants (Buchu, Hoodia, Rooibos, Sceletium) has led to the development of commercial products.