Every day that I hear about a case that we have won, or someone who has been able to get an issue solved as a result of our help, is a day that makes me proud to work here. Some of our clients face immense challenges and to be part of an organisation that can help make a real and lasting change for the better is a privilege. As it is part of my role to ensure that we have enough funding to run our services, days when we are awarded grants for new projects are always cause for celebration!
What do you think is the greatest challenge for women looking to access justice in the UK?
The lack of legal aid is a huge problem. Women are statistically likely to be on lower incomes, and to be carers, and the lack of a universal publicly funded system to enable people on low incomes to access justice is an immense barrier. Added to this are the practical issues that many women face – knowing where to turn, being able to afford to get there, having someone to look after the kids so that you can talk in privacy, etc.
Even where legal aid exists, the system is so threadbare that it can be very hard to get help – for example, people at risk of losing their home can find it almost impossible to find someone to take their case on now. Obviously, the evidence requirements for women who had experienced domestic violence were a major hurdle, and Rights of Women did a fantastic job in fighting these.
Over 60% of Islington Law Centre’s clients are women, and without our funding from other sources, many of them would not have had any access to a lawyer. A lot have low incomes or poor health, and those who are in work are often facing very poor employment practices. We know that women often face problems at work when they are pregnant or have just given birth, and a decent legal aid system would provide protection for such women.
How far has the UK come towards gender parity in the legal profession?
As in many areas, there has been progress, with more women coming into the profession than when I first started working, but women are not always reaching the most senior roles, and it is getting very hard for talented younger women to enter the profession. The combination of high levels of student debt, the difficulties of getting a training contract and then the high costs of housing and childcare mean that it is very tough for people who want to work in the legal profession, particularly women, and especially in the legal aid or not for profit sector. It is very encouraging to see new initiatives such as the Legal Education Foundation’s “Justice First” Fellowships, which are helping to build new routes into the profession and bringing fresh energy and ideas.
Who, or what, inspires you most and why?
I am inspired by people who don’t give up, and who fight for justice even when it seems a long way off. Working at Islington Law Centre, and alongside colleagues from a range of legal aid and not for profit agencies has enabled me to meet both amazing clients who have stood up for what they know is right, as well as lawyers and campaigners who have supported them and ensured that they have been able to get their case into the justice system.
I am inspired by my colleagues who daily do battle on behalf of clients as well as by people like Shami Chakrabarti and Baroness Hale, who not only stand up for what is right but provide encouragement and support to others.
What have you discovered during your career which you would have benefitted from knowing as a student?
I had no idea that jobs like mine existed when I was a student, and if I had, I would have worried less about what I was going to do with my life! I tried out various jobs before I came to Islington Law Centre and I would say that what has helped me most in my career is the experience I gained as a volunteer and within community organisations.
As a Trustee of the local Citizens Advice Bureau, I gained invaluable experience of interviewing advisors and reading application forms, as well as tricky questions about how to prioritise limited resources and have the biggest impact. I also had the chance to work alongside people I would never have met in my day job.
Women are sometimes less confident about putting themselves forward for jobs and I would encourage them to consider getting involved in a local organisation, or setting up a project, as it can open up paths that you wouldn’t have known were there. The biggest satisfaction is from feeling that you have made a real difference, and there are real opportunities to do so in every city, town and village.
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.