I have lots of good days at work, which makes them less memorable than the worst days! But one that stands out from early in my career is when I won a case in the Court of Appeal that kinship carers – who look after a relative’s child when the parents are unable to do so – were entitled to the same benefits as others in a similar situation. The case established that the carer of a child under a Residence Order had the same entitlement as adoptive and birth parents to a Sure Start Maternity Grant (a social security benefit) under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. My client, who was struggling financially to look after her nephew as well as her own three children, really needed the grant, so it was a great win for her and for everyone else in her situation. At the time challenges to benefit entitlement rules brought under the Human Rights Act rarely succeeded so it felt like a significant victory.
What do you think is the greatest challenge for women looking to access justice in the UK?
Access to justice is expensive, and legal aid is increasingly difficult to access, both in terms of the types of work that can be publically funded, and the strict income and capital limits that apply even when you are in scope. So finding legal representation is impossible for many, but navigating the legal system without it can be perilous.
How far has the UK come towards gender parity in the legal profession?
In 2014 the gender pay gap across all private practice solicitors in England stood at 30 per cent (Law Society 2014). This gap is more substantial than that in the wider market, where women earn 19.1 per cent less than men (measured by gross hourly pay) in the same year. Further research is needed on the reasons for the very high gender pay gap but it is certainly true that in private practice some women find it hard to maintain the career path progression after they have children that they could have expected before that. Men who are fathers do not seem to face the same barrier. There are also many women, like me, who choose to work in the public, in-house, or third sectors where the pay gap is not so stark, but the financial rewards are considerably lower.
Who, or what, inspires you most and why?
It is a bit corny to say so, but my three children are the reason I come to work every day, and for pretty much everything else I do too. My work is all aimed at the bigger picture: trying to make the world a better place for other people, today and in the future. Trying to change even small things to improve the lives and opportunities of people in their generation is a great motivator because they show us why we should have hope.
What have you discovered during your career which you would have benefitted from knowing as a student?
In my work communication skills are at least as important as legal skills; it is no use getting the analysis right if your lay clients think you are talking a foreign language. So being able to explain the law, or a legal problem, in plain English is more important than knowing the case citations off the top of your head.
Join us on 19 March 2016 for our Annual Student Conference to hear Andrea Coomber, Director of JUSTICE, in conversation with Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty. Sign up now.