Jenna Hall, 27, is a Justice First Fellow and trainee solicitor at Clan Childlaw, a charity providing free legal advice and representation to children and young people in Scotland. She is due to qualify in 2019. You can read other articles in the series here.
I knew I wanted to help people and become a social welfare lawyer, I just didn’t know how to get there. It’s very competitive and difficult to secure any traineeship, so the Justice First Fellowship scheme caught my eye.
The support and training during the scheme elevates the traineeship beyond the standard two-year training contract. As well as the opportunity to develop a project to increase access to justice, you are part of the cohort of fellows.
The Scottish government recently consulted on reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004. It considered whether to remove the need for a psychiatric diagnosis and introduce a self-declaration model of legal gender recognition; reduce from 18 the age at which people can get legal recognition of the gender they live as; and provide legal recognition for people who identify as non-binary.
I have been working with LGBT Youth Scotland on their campaign to improve legal rights and recognition for transgender and non-binary young people, as part of my JFF project. LGBTYS set up a Gender Recognition Youth Commission early last year in response to the consultation. I have been supporting its youth participation work and advising the policy team. I will be supporting the commission with upcoming meetings with MSPs to raise awareness and promote positive messages about the impact that equal recognition will have for trans and non-binary young people.
As lawyers for children and young people, we see first-hand situations where broader change to a law, policy, or its implementation would help make life better for children and young people.
Trans and non-binary young people face barriers to living their lives, simply because their birth certificates and other documents don’t reflect their realities.
All children and young people should be able to get on with their lives, work or study, free from stress and worry about being themselves.
Most children and young people we help have been in care and the law is a tool to ensure they can participate in decisions about them. It’s great to hear a young person say they are glad we helped them.
The worse thing about being a legal aid lawyer is coming across children and young people who have been let down at various points in their lives and have given up in some respect. That’s why the work we do is so important.
A good legal aid lawyer should be persistent, a good listener and empathetic.
Working with young people, you must have the ability to build good relationships and trust, giving them as much time as they need to talk through their problems and what is going on in their life.
You need to be personable because it is daunting for young people, who may see lawyers as scary, stuffy, formal people who speak legal language. You may have to work to dispel stereotypes.
One of my first cases was representing a 14-year-old autistic girl, whose contact with her mother was going to be reduced. She wanted to tell the hearing that seeing her mum every week was important, but she was anxious about speaking to the panel and worried that no one would listen to her or care about her views. I met her at school. We talked through her rights and worries, so she was able to take part in the procedure and influence the decision-makers. Without independent representation, she would have struggled to communicate her views.
My legal hero is Mary Bonauto, an American lawyer in the LGBT movement whose work has shaped the law and driven cultural change. For more than 25 years, she was the civil rights project director at the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and she had led some of the biggest strategic cases to the LGBT movement, including the Supreme Court case that eventually ruled state bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.
I was first person in my family to go to university and was raised by a single parent. The financial pressure of studying and trying to gain practical experience was tough, but made me more determined and driven to succeed. It doesn’t always have to be the traditional path and it may take a bit longer to get there, but if social welfare law is your passion, put everything you have into it.
Rights don’t hold meaning, if we can’t enforce them. Access to justice promotes empowerment, drives fairness and equality and social change.