Naima Asif was one of the first barristers to qualify under The Legal Education Foundation’s Justice First Fellowship. After a year as a caseworker at Advocate, the Bar’s pro bono unit, she completed pupillage at Pump Court Chambers in London in October 2018. You can read the rest of the series here.
I want to use my skills and knowledge to benefit people, and I was drawn to the Justice First Fellowship because of its focus on social welfare law. The fellowship was also an opportunity to build a strong network with like-minded individuals.
During my year at Advocate, I matched people in need of legal assistance with barristers, which gave me an insight into many areas of law. It made me appreciate that those without means or ineligible for legal aid, have few ways to access legal help, without legal charities and lawyers willing to work pro bono. Without this, many people, including some of the most marginalised in society, would be denied access to justice.
For my JFF project, I worked with Harriet Dudbridge, another Justice First Fellow, on a project to teach children about the family justice system. We collaborated with the Citizenship Foundation to deliver a lesson to year 9 students on public law proceedings. The students wore wigs and gowns and took part in a mock trial. It was incredibly rewarding. We hope to continue to work with charities to deliver lessons in schools on important issues, including the role of the family courts in protecting those who at risk of forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
A few years ago, I worked with two human rights organisations in Pakistan, supporting vulnerable women and girls who were victims of forced or child marriage and unimaginable domestic abuse. Some were hiding in a refuge because they were at risk of being killed by relatives. I also worked with death row prisoners, who had been let down by the criminal justice system.
This work helped me truly understand the importance of access to justice and how the law can be used as a powerful tool to transform lives.
My aspirations have very much been shaped by Pakistani human rights lawyers and social activists, Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani, who co-founded the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan. Asma Jahangir, who died last year, became Pakistan’s first woman to serve as President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, and among other things, she served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion. Hina Jilani, an advocate in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, co-founded with her sister the country’s first all-female legal aid practice. Their commitment to upholding the rule of law and protecting the rights of the ordinary and vulnerable, often at great personal sacrifice, has been extraordinary.
I am also hugely inspired by many members of Pump Court Chambers, who have taught me and given me the best and most supportive start to my career.
The best thing about being a legal aid lawyer is helping those who otherwise may not be able to access justice. The worst thing is the cuts to legal aid, which are having a devastating impact on access to justice.
A good legal aid lawyer should have resilience, tenacity and compassion.
The legal profession is immensely competitive but don’t be put off by that – work hard, find your unique selling point and persevere.
Access to justice is important because without it people’s legal needs remain unmet. These needs often relate to the most sensitive aspects of peoples’ lives, for example, contact with children or housing issues. The effect of being denied this fundamental right is catastrophic and disproportionately affects those who are already disadvantaged and vulnerable. The law should be equally accessible to all, regardless of socio-economic background.