JustRight Scotland was founded by human rights lawyers to defend and extend people’s rights. They work across four legal centres in the areas of gender-based violence, migrant rights, anti-trafficking and exploitation, and disability justice and trans rights. They provide direct legal advice and representation to individuals; deliver training to other civil society organisations; and undertake research, policy and influencing work.
Their aim is to reduce gaps in access to justice for people in Scotland who are marginalised or disadvantaged, and to thereby reduce inequality and discrimination. JustRight believe in the power of collaboration – and every project, in every centre – involves lawyers working with non-lawyers to pool resources, skills and knowledge to extend the reach and value of their collective work.
COVID-19 and the actions taken in response to it has widened the gap for disabled people in Scotland with serious and concerning consequences, as set out in Inclusion Scotland’s Rights at Risk Report (October 2020). Furthermore, the lockdown associated with our response to the pandemic has brought with it an increase in gender-based violence, with JRS’ Scottish Women’s Rights Centre responding by increasing legal information and legal helpline and surgery capacity to meet the increased demand from women seeking legal advice on accessing safety and support. JustRight have also continued to support the Stop Lock Change Evictions Coalition through their anti-destitution work, to increase support for migrants and asylum seekers such as the provision of safe and adequate accommodation.
The Foundation is funding JustRight with the launch of their Scottish Just Law Centre, which aims to help people use the law as a tool to challenge discrimination and disadvantage, focusing initially on disability and trans justice. The Centre works with two key partners to deliver this project – Inclusion Scotland, a national Disabled People’s Organisation, and the Equality Network’s Scottish Trans Alliance project, which works to improve gender identity and gender reassignment equality, rights and inclusion across Scotland.
Jen is originally Chinese-American, but her father was a diplomat, meaning she grew up in various countries in East Asia and the Middle East. Those experiences taught her that people belong everywhere, as she says, ‘home is where you make it’. However, growing-up she noticed deep barriers to people feeling a sense of belonging where they lived, and those barriers lived in other people’s minds. It was Jen’s desire for ensuring equality and belonging for people who are discriminated against for whatever reason which motivated her to become a human rights lawyer.
She always knew she wanted to combine practice with teaching and for the last thirteen years has taught a first-year law course at the Open University. Teaching people who were told in secondary school that they were not suitable for higher education – she gets to witness them grow in confidence, with almost all of them starting off with a keen interest in social justice and hopes of using the law for good. Teaching, Jen says, helps her keep an eye on the future of the legal profession.
When asked what advice she would offer aspiring human rights lawyers, she answers immediately. ‘Hold onto the things which motivated you to study using the law for good in the first place’. She talks to the opportunities out there, or rather lack of them. Opportunities to work as a human rights lawyer or in a legal charity are scarce, pushing people to qualification routes in other areas of law – mainly through private practice. She advises law students to seek out opportunities where they arise – including corporate traineeships – but don’t lose touch with your wider goal, carry on volunteering and don’t give up hope. You will learn a lot if you work hard and maintain your curiosity, and what you learn will make you a better and more creative lawyer in future. This is the path Jen took, re-qualifying as an English solicitor whilst working at a City law firm, when she first arrived in the UK in 2002, after initially qualifying in law in the USA.
Hold onto the things which motivated you to study using the law for good in the first place.
As a partner in a legal charity which works on a range of issues, keeping up with everything is a serious challenge for Jen. Having an open and curious mind is central to this, but so too are the people you have around you, and the importance of sharing thinking across sectors and jurisdictions.
Jen believes that now is a profoundly serious moment for human rights lawyers in the UK. Reflecting on the EU referendum, she feels that human rights laws were so embedded in the UK legal system but not visible enough; however, the impact of COVID-19 has made them more visible now than ever before. She feels that regular conversations with friends and colleagues in the US and across Europe helps to highlight the links between what is happening in the UK and global trends around the rise of national sovereignty over and regression in rights – and also helps us to better prepare to respond to those threats here in the UK.
Focusing back in Scotland, a key learning for Jen from working with Inclusion Scotland is the massive gap in accessing justice for disabled people. She found the Scottish laws as they stand are reasonably strong but are rarely actually realised in practice. Part of this is because people experience injustice but do not link it to legal rights, and part of it is a lack of available lawyers or legal advice projects for people to turn to, to ensure their rights are upheld. An estimated one-fifth of the Scottish population are disabled people and they experience higher levels of inequality as compared to their non-disabled peers across all areas of life from education and employment to transport, housing and access to services and more. A massive challenge for the project will be identifying the best ways of making a strategic impact for individuals. But for Jen, JRS’s work on disability justice must go beyond taking strategic cases. She wants to continue to work with lawyers and non-lawyers alike to secure greater protections within the law for disabled people and to promote a fuller understanding of the importance of disability justice for all of us.
Scottish laws [around disability] as they stand are reasonably strong but are rarely actually realised in practice.
Jen and colleagues are also busy developing strategy for their trans rights work. The importance of this work is clear – research shows the high-level of mental health inequalities experienced by trans people, including young trans people, such as depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal ideation as a result of the minority stress they face. They experience stark health inequalities, including not only waits as long as three years to access NHS gender identity services, but also discrimination and lack of understanding from healthcare providers across all health services. They also experience disproportionate levels of violence (both interpersonal and at the hands of the state). Thankfully, the government and third sector in Scotland know that there is a gap in access to justice in the country for trans people. For Jen and her team at JustRight, trans justice is a core human rights equality issue, and one they are committed to supporting in the coming months and years.
For Jen and her team, trans justice is a core human rights equality issue, and one they are committed to supporting.
Pandemic or not, taking care of ourselves is crucial in this kind of work. Jen sees a particular risk for people whose work is also their passion – like human rights activists – in failing to draw boundaries between work and rest, leading to burnout. Not only is that a loss for the individual, but for the people you work with and the issues you care about. She also sees organisations like JustRight, whose staff work daily with people who have experienced – and sometimes are still experiencing – complex trauma, as having a heightened responsibility to support staff in these roles and think proactively about wellbeing.
When JustRight was founded, Jen marched her co-founders up Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano in the middle of Edinburgh, to take stock of and celebrate this milestone. Mountain walks and being by the sea give Jen a literal and figurative perspective on things. She says it is important to bring yourself out of the details, of trauma and pain, and the noise around the urgency of things, to remember who you are and why you do this.
JustRight has numerous ways in which others can get involved in their work. Jen urges people to learn more about the issues they work on and get involved where they can. Each centre has specific strategic campaigns – for example, the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre is focused on improving the experiences of women survivors of violence in the justice system, the Scottish Refugee & Migrant Centre is campaigning on asylum seeker and migrant destitution, particularly for those with no recourse to public funds, and the JustCitizens project is working to build a broad and inclusive vision of citizenship in Scotland. True to her commitment to collaboration and working with other organisations, Jen mentions supporting law centres near where you are. She also urges funders to create more opportunities for internships and training opportunities – there must be a concerted effort to raise the next generation of social justice lawyers and prepare them to carry the baton.
To learn more about the work of JustRight Scotland, visit https://www.justrightscotland.org.uk/.