Emma-Rose Duffy, 25, is an apprentice solicitor at the Children’s Law Centre Belfast with a passion for protecting children’s rights. See other Justice First Fellows in the series here
As a young child I was faced with the prospect of giving evidence at court. I will never forget the distress I felt at the thought of it; the fear of the unknown and not understanding what my rights were. From that moment, I promised myself I would do anything I could to try and prevent any other child feeling the same.
I visited the Federal District Court and State Court of Los Angeles, including the criminal and children’s court in California, as part of the Irish American Bar Association’s extern programme. On my return, I qualified as a volunteer for the NSPCC’s Young Witness Service.
During my time in LA, I spent several weeks observing in Edmund D Edelman Children’s Dependency Court, which was designed and built to be a child-sensitive courthouse. It was a complete contrast to the court facilities we have for children in Northern Ireland. Seeing this unique court first hand further ignited my passion to help improve the court system and help promote children’s rights in Northern Ireland.
While studying for my masters in children’s rights, I had the opportunity to visit the Children’s Law Centre in Belfast and meet Liam Mackle, the advice manager. I was able to learn about their work for the most vulnerable in our society, and that inspired me to one day join their team.
Children are the most vulnerable group within our society. They need protection; they need people to fight for them, as the Children’s Law Centre does on a daily basis. I feel very honoured to now be able to say that I am part of that.
Despite Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child stating that children have a right to have their voices heard, considered and given due weight, children and young people have been largely excluded from Brexit discussions. What is more, 16 and 17 year olds were legally ineligible to vote in the referendum. It is imperative that children’s rights are made a priority and protected to minimise the negative impact of Brexit on them.
The JFF project I am working on involves doing just that. Northern Ireland is unique in that it is the only part of the UK with a land border with another EU state. Tens of thousands of people cross the border freely for education, health care and work on a daily basis. I believe introducing a hard border post-Brexit will have a detrimental impact on citizens in Northern Ireland, particularly children. For the first stage of my project, I researched and wrote a paper
focusing on the impact Brexit will have on children’s education in NI. This has been used to advocate for the protection of children’s educational rights, particularly children with disabilities, at several Brexit events and discussions.
The next stage, which I am currently working on, involves compiling scenarios illustrating the potential impact for children accessing services across the border post-Brexit, in areas such as healthcare and specialist clinical placements for children.
The best thing about being a legal aid lawyer is going to work every day knowing that you are helping to make a difference in the lives of society’s most vulnerable citizens from all different walks of life, and the fact that your days are never dull.
The worst thing about being a legal aid lawyer is the fact that funding is declining when the number of people in need of help is increasing.
To be a good legal aid lawyer you need the three Ps – passion, patience and perseverance.
My real life legal aid hero is Dr Ivy Williams, the first woman in England to be called to the bar and to teach law at an English University. Although she didn’t ever practise law, she changed attitudes and strived for equal opportunities and treatment. Preventing inequalities under the law is essential in promoting a fair, democratic society.
My fictional legal aid hero is the character Elle Woods from Legally Blonde. It is not just because she shares my love for all things pink, but because she defies the stereotypical lawyer and through her own hard work, merit and determination proved all the doubters wrong.
I grew up in a somewhat deprived area of NI in a single parent family and did not attend a grammar school, but in 2011 I achieved my goal by graduating from Queen’s University with a law degree. When I talked from a young age about my dream to study law, I was constantly met with doubt and disbelief and told it was not achievable for me. Just like Elle, it was that doubt and disbelief, coupled with my passion for law, that made me even more determined not to give up, despite what other people thought.
The phrase that I strive to live by is ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’. The law is there to be used for positive change and to make a real difference in people’s lives. It can be hard and challenging at times, but what job isn’t? If it is something you are truly passionate about, never give up hope. There is no better feeling than knowing that your listening ear, hard work and actions have had a positive impact on someone’s life.
A reliable and robust justice system is essential in reassuring society that the courts are there to enforce our rights. Accessing justice is one of our most basic human rights, regardless of our background or culture. We are all human and all deserve to have our voices heard and rights protected.
I am part of a group with two other Justice First Fellows who also work in children’s law: Jenna Hall from Clan Childlaw, which is based in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and Alex Temple from Just for Kids Law, in London. The JFF programme has enabled us to collaborate and visit each other’s organisations. It has been very useful to learn about other jurisdictions, the different types of work they do, and how the law differs throughout the UK.
- Child friendly courts: what we can learn from America - 11th December 2017
- My Justice First Fellowship: Emma-Rose Duffy - 28th November 2017