Caitriona Boland, 31, is a Justice First Fellow and apprentice solicitor at Law Centre (NI) in Northern Ireland, which specialises in social security, trafficking, employment, mental health and community care law. Caitriona is undertaking her first seat, in employment, and will qualify in September 2018.
- You can read interviews with other Justice First Fellows here
I was drawn to the Fellowship scheme because it focuses specifically on those who are committed to social justice, and because of the chance to develop a personal project, which adds an extra responsibility to the traineeship.
For my JFF project, I am looking at the legislative and policy protections against forced labour and exploitation.
I chose this area because forced labour is an issue that has been largely unexplored, and there is a lack of data about the number of people affected. According to the official figures that are available, in 2015, there were 53 suspected victims of trafficking in Northern Ireland. Of these, 31 were in suspected forced labour; 12 were suspected of being sexually exploited; three were in suspected domestic servitude; 13 were minors. Enforcement here is patchy, partly because it is split between different agencies, some of which are located in national UK government departments; others are based in Northern Ireland and have devolved powers.
The law centre’s anti-trafficking and employment work has enabled us to observe directly how forced labour affects people, as well as the lack of enforcement.
My project will raise awareness of labour exploitation, and identify gaps in enforcement provisions. Remedies available to victims currently are limited and very few cases reach the courts. We hope to ensure more victims are properly compensated. We plan to use strategic litigation to increase enforcement and ultimately reduce the amount of forced labour in Northern Ireland.
In Northern Ireland, the training to become a solicitor is split between blocks of time spent in the office, alternated with blocks spent studying at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies. I am an apprentice, rather than a trainee, and have a master, rather than a training principal.
The best thing about being a legal aid lawyer is helping those who feel that they do not have a voice and using the law to help instigate change.
The worst thing is the lack of funding and being unable to take on every case that you encounter.
The three qualities you need as a legal aid lawyer are: resilience – to learn from cases you lose without letting it knock you back; perseverance – to keep going and pushing for that result; and, most importantly, empathy when dealing with clients. It is also important to be able to step back and not take things too personally especially when dealing with vulnerable clients’ cases, which is probably one of the hardest things to do.
My legal hero is Atticus Finch from the book To Kill a Mockingbird.
I would advise someone thinking of becoming a legal aid lawyer to go for it and don’t listen to the negativity. People told me along the way that it was very hard work and difficult to get into. It did take me a while to get here, but it is what I wanted to do.
Access to justice matters because without it, rights would never be recognised and enforced and there would never be change.
During the Fellowship, I have found the workshops, where all the Fellows and host organisations are brought together, very useful in building up skills and giving me new ideas about how to approach my project. It is inspiring to meet the other Fellows. I leave these events feeling that we are making a difference.
The Justice First Fellowship scheme is run by The Legal Education Foundation. www.thelegaleducationfoundation.org