This is a hard question to answer. I think I can safely say that my best day of work is likely to have been at JUSTICE, but at the same time, isolating one day is not easy. One of the reasons I enjoy working here is that it’s unfailingly interesting. It’s such a luxury to be able to spend every day doing work that’s so engaging.
Not to completely discount my work history, before I started at JUSTICE, I worked for a pressure group that was considering launching a private prosecution for fraud against a bank employee. I was responsible for gathering documentary evidence and taking witness statements. It was a good day at work when counsels’ advice came back to the effect that, on the evidence, there was a case to be had. I privately took that as a sort of endorsement of the work I’d done, working on my own initiative, my magnificent witness statement-taking skills, etc.
What do you think is the greatest challenge for women looking to access justice in the UK?
The most ‘topical’ must be the impact on survivors of domestic violence, mostly women, of over-strict tests for legal aid in family law cases, which require a prescribed form of evidence of abuse, and which have recently been held to be unlawful by the Court of Appeal, thanks to the efforts of Rights of Women. Another “challenge” is the hike in employment tribunal fees, which has resulted in a huge drop in the number of women pursuing sex discrimination claims (as well as a massive reduction in claims, generally). An enduring problem is the reporting of and conviction rates in relation to rape, the vast majority of victims of which are women. This problem seems to extend beyond the criminal justice system, and roots itself in our cultural attitudes.
Who, or what, inspires you most and why?
I suppose anyone – or the idea of someone – who stands up against tyranny, or who otherwise fights to uphold the rights of those who are ignored or less privileged or regarded as distasteful. I admire people who act on a compulsion to break free from passivity or ignorance or apathy and take on those who are benefiting from it. It’s so life-affirming when people like the Ford Dagenham strikers, or the women who stayed at the Greenham Common peace camp, make a stand – and it’s so awful when people are unable or unequipped to protect their rights. I think that was the basis of my initial decision to pursue a career in criminal law: I wanted to make myself into someone who had skills and knowledge that could be of genuine use to people at a moment in their lives when they’re probably experiencing the power of the state most keenly.
What attracts you to a career in the law?
I’m motivated by the idea of being self-employed, the vocational nature of the job, and the chance to do something I think is genuinely worthwhile. My experiences so far have served to confirm for me that I’ve made the right decision in pursuing a career in the law. In particular, I remember the first day of an employment tribunal hearing I was representing a client in through the Free Representation Unit. It was the first time I got to do cross-examination and examination-in-chief in real life, and I remember thinking that I couldn’t believe that they actually paid you to perform these exciting, challenging and purposeful activities. Then I remembered I was a volunteer. But the idea of spending every day of my working life in court, being an advocate, is very attractive to me.
You started work at JUSTICE through a Kalisher Trust internship. Tell us a little bit about that opportunity.
The Kalisher Trust offers much-needed support to aspiring criminal barristers through scholarships, training and internships – including internships at JUSTICE. It paid for me to spend four indispensable months at JUSTICE, building on my research and drafting skills and immersing myself in the legal world, in what was one of the most instructive experiences of my legal education so far.
During the internship, I worked mainly with Jodie Blackstock, the Director of Criminal Justice, contributing research and drafting research notes for the Complex and Lengthy Trials report. I also followed her to meetings with legal professionals and third sector organisations involved in law reform, and to conferences such as the Annual Bar Conference.
Do you have any top tips for other students who are looking for internships in the law?
The JUSTICE internship is the only one I’ve ever done, so I’m not sure how qualified I am to offer tips! I would say, though, that if you think you’d like to do an internship, apply, even if you think you don’t stand much of a chance (particularly if that thought is based on the assumption that there must be loads of better candidates out there). I didn’t think for a second that I’d get an interview at JUSTICE.
At the same time, make yourself into an attractive candidate by taking on relevant work experience – but really take it on: gaining pro bono experience shouldn’t be a box-ticking exercise. I’ve found that there are usually opportunities requiring varying levels of time-commitment (at least while you’re at university), so you can always fit something in with studies, or work-and-studies.
If you’re studying in a part of the country where relevant opportunities are a bit thin on the ground, why not make opportunities for yourself! While I was doing the GDL, I organised a conference at my university, on international human rights law. This gave me the chance to practice presenting persuasive arguments by trying to convince my university to host and fund it, to practice public speaking by introducing the speakers, and also provided me (and everyone who attended) with an opportunity to meet and hear from the practitioners and academics who came to speak.
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.