Good days at work are ones where we get feedback on the value of work we have done. Recently the Law Centres Network released a report on best practice in the treatment of child asylum seekers. Within the first week of its release it had been tweeted about, downloaded, and responded to over 30,000 times. That was rewarding for everyone involved.
Working in the legal aid and charity sector can feel unrelenting. You need a clear sense of why you are doing it. It’s not the funding cuts that are the most difficult but the continual public policy shifts that undermine people’s ability to move forward with their lives. The best days are those where you have evidence that your work has had an impact.
What do you think is the greatest challenge for women looking to access justice in the UK?
Money. If you have money you can buy justice. If not, bad luck.
There are so many platitudes spoken about self-reliant citizens, resolving disputes outside the courts, using digital services etc. Of course this is part of the story, but often what women need is a cup of tea with someone who they can talk through their situation and provide them with options. Even this is in short supply. For those women who need to take their matter to court, it is even harder to find an affordable service to assist. Every day we get calls from women who have been sent around in circles looking for help and sadly we are too often unable to assist. This is demoralising because you know if there were funds available, the problem could be resolved.
In reality, most women with a legal problem and insufficient funds are left to their own devices since the changes to civil legal aid. Many do nothing as a result. The problem goes unresolved but does not go away.
How far has the UK come towards gender parity in third sector legal professions?
I have been a feminist since 1972. My peers have watched significant movement towards equality since that time. My daughters certainly have many more opportunities than we did 40 odd years ago and their expectation about life chances are not limited by their conception of what can be achieved as a woman. This is a major shift. But we are not there yet.
In the third sector, including the legal profession specifically, women dominate at most levels.
However, the question raised in relation to gender equality is why can there be so many competent, and in some cases exceptional, women leading Third Sector organisations but there are not a similar number of women at senior levels in the private sector or political life? It seems that the ethos is that it is OK to have women running ‘feel good outfits’ but not serious business.
Equal pay remains to be achieved. Even in the Third Sector, men at a similar level are often paid more.
Who, or what, inspires you most and why?
There are many inspirational individuals but the main thing that inspires or drives me is the desire to ‘do good’ and to make a small contribution to building a fairer world.
What have you discovered during your career which you would have benefitted from knowing as a student?
You do not know how things are going to unfold. Each job can lead you in an unexpected direction. If you don’t like it, try something else. Take opportunities as they are made available. Individuals can make a difference. Just get on with it and give it a go.
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.