Alternative Careers in Law

On 18/11/14 TCD FLAC hosted an ‘Alternative Careers in Law’ event, in which numerous speakers from varied career backgrounds, spoke to a packed out global room in the Hamilton about their journeys and career decisions. The key message which was expounded throughout the evening and mentioned by our Chair Gary Hansell in his introduction, was that even within law, our career trajectory is not set in stone.

The first to speak was Senator, Professor and Fellow Ivana Bacik, who spoke of the difficulty in planning a career in law and politics, emphasising that “sometimes things just organically happen.” She talked of the benefits of Chambers in the UK, which provides a framework for work and gives support we don’t have here, whilst being difficult to combine with other work, also noting how it is relatively easy to transfer between jurisdictions as she did. She recommended taking a masters qualification as it is essential for the Irish bar and opens up the option of part time teaching and full time academia.

Secondly, Professor David Kenny addressed the audience about the unpredictability of getting a job in academia as well as the key benefit of having a flexible schedule around teaching commitments. He told us that the path to getting a job in academia roughly involves six steps:

Step 1. Do well in college

Step 2. Do a masters

Step 3. Do a PhD in some topic of law (he described this step as “three years of misery; both satisfying and frustrating”)

Step 4. Start to publish, ideally throughout your PhD

Step 5. Get some teaching experience

Step 6. Hopefully get a teaching position that is open. This is dependent on what universities are hiring and if your profile matches them.

Next, Zse Varga, who works in volunteer management with FLAC, talked about the practical benefits of studying business or management courses and how the skills gained in this kind of training enable you to “make things work.” She also provided with us with information on the history and current workings of FLAC.

Eithne Lynch, who joined us from the Public Interest Law Alliance (PILA), was the next to speak. Although she found working with one of the large Dublin law firms a valuable experience, she realised it wasn’t for her. She spoke of her ongoing involvement as a volunteer in Rule of Law projects in Africa. As a legal officer in PILA, part of her job is to look for strategic opportunities to address lacunas in the law and make change – this is achieved, in part, through strategic litigation which enables PILA to make a real impact.

Next, Edel Quinn, legal and policy officer for the Children’s Rights Alliance spoke to the crowd. She always saw the law as a means of change. She took the New York bar as she felt this was the best international qualification available and got involved working in NGOs. She stressed that if you are in a well run and well financed NGO which is professionally organised “you can have an impact.” In her everyday work, Edel identifies areas of non-compliance with international human rights and lobbies around these issues. Her focus in her work with the Children’s Rights Alliance is the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. She concluded her talk by telling the audience that they don’t have to go down a route they are uncomfortable with, as she has a rewarding career that she doesn’t consider alternative.

Gareth Noble, partner in KOD Lyons, then spoke about his expansion from criminal defence work into human rights law. Through a merger with another firm, KOD Lyons “took seriously a gap in the market for a proper human rights firm in Ireland”, recognising they “could and should use the law to effect social change.” He spoke of the firm’s assistance NGO sector as being greatly valued as they can provide real expertise. He also spoke of the firms utilisation of the media of Facebook, and how the firm has used it to reach a wider client-base and help a greater number of people.

Brian Collins, a solicitor at the Irish Refugee Council and Law Centre, talked about his journey from being an intern in the IRC to becoming a legal officer and recently qualifying as a solicitor. He described working in an NGO, noting that although it’s all hands on deck all the time and not always 9-5 it’s very rewarding, and commented that “the world is coming to your desk”. In this line of work he said early legal advice is key, as well as strategic litigation. He recommended interning to make connections and become better-known.

The eighth speaker was Laura Butler, who regaled us with the story of how she took the initiative of putting herself forward for a job in a criminal legal aid firm. She heard they were looking for someone to help but didn’t have time to do interviews, so she approached the employer, asked for work and organised her contract on a beer mat! The moral of this story, she told us, was to “keep your ear to the ground.” In talking of her transition to education and later joining the NGO world, she noted that the one thing a law degree gives you is transferability. She spoke about making choices that balance your career and other things in life. She ended by saying: “I am not hugely wealthy, but I am hugely fulfilled from a career perspective.”

Our final speaker was Maria Mullan, a solicitor from the Irish human rights and equality commission, a brand new independent body whose purpose is to protect and promote human rights and equality throughout society. As a legal officer her focus is promoting these aims through legal means, by involvement with proceedings involving human or equality rights. She told the audience that she feels “privileged to be able to use her qualifications to effect change” for individuals who ask for help and the wider society in general. She also noted that there is always time to try something else; you will in time get to experience a challenging, but ultimately very rewarding, career.

The speakers portrayed a real sense that they were in their chosen careers, not because it was what they felt compelled to do but because it involved the kind of work they enjoyed or naturally felt drawn to. A recurring theme was the feeling of job satisfaction and fulfilment. Overall, the evening provided the audience with a range of career choices to consider, outside the normal scope of career choices typically presented to law students, in which a law degree would be equally valued.

Aisling Murray

Direct Provision Talk

On Wednesday 12th November, FLAC hosted a talk on the direct provision system, the subject of a High Court ruling on Friday. The High Court found direct provision not to be unlawful or in breach of the human rights of those in the system. Our speakers seem to have thought otherwise.

Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality and Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, spoke about the necessity for equality in society and said that equality should be at the centre of everything that we do. He expressed his desire for reform, something that led to further discussion later in the talk. Ó Ríordáin sees the system as one in which asylum seekers should not spend more than a few months and has set up a working group to make recommendations which should be published early next year. The reform he envisions would do away with the centres ‘basically run by catering companies’ with no expert knowledge of how to help these immigrants who may have been trafficked here or fled violence in their countries of origin. The institutionalisation of the migrants and their regimented daily regimes are not conducive to good mental health or indeed productivity of any form. The Minister, however, also emphasised the hugely varying standards of the direct provision centres scattered around the country ‘Some were decent and some you would not spend an hour in’. At the end of his speech the Minister reiterated his commitment to reform and his hope that subsequent governments would continue to push for improvements in immigrants’ rights.

Patricia Brazil, lecturer in law at Trinity, gave an enlightening speech on the legal basis for direct provision and the arduous process those in the system must endure to secure their right to reside in this country. Until the mid-1990s there was little migration to the country and so cases were dealt with mostly on an ad hoc basis because there was no real need for a legal framework. As a result, legislation was only brought in in 1996. Brazil says Ireland has always been playing catch up, with a crisis mentality that has led to a fragmented and incoherent decision making process. There are three different stages to the process, all must begin in the first and seek leave to remain in the country by a new submission to the Commissioner. The Commissioner is not permitted to look at all aspects or stages in a single hearing.

  1. Refugee status – grounds to remain on a well-founded fear of persecution for race, nationality, political opinion or membership of a political group.
  2. Subsidiary protection – when there are substantial grounds for real risk of serious harm. Mostly occurring in situations of international or internal armed conflict
  3. Humanitarian leave – e.g. illness, if the applicant has been here for a long time and has a family and children here.

 

Judicial review is permitted at each stage and there is a substantial amount because of flaws in many decisions. Direct provision itself was introduced in 1999 to prevent an Article 3 breach and has no statutory basis. The social welfare payment of €19.10 a week for an adult is an arbitrary amount chosen by civil servants because it was low enough not to incentivise people to come to Ireland. It is the only social welfare payment that has not been raised by subsequent governments. On a more personal side, Patricia Brazil spoke about the people in direct provision that she has encountered, and the severe damage the system has done to their overall wellbeing and mental health. She identified the lack of productivity due to the ban on employment as a key contributing factor and recommended that this barrier should be removed.

 

Sue Conlan, CEO of the Irish Refugee Council, also spoke emotively of the harm direct provision has done to the many migrants she has come into contact with since her appointment in 2010. She emphasised how bewildering and terrifying the experience can be for a migrant arriving at the reception centre in Balseskin, where all are sent before dispersal around the country to various centres. Some may not have even heard of Ireland before they arrive, many have no English. It is not uncommon, in fact it is a consistent problem, for the Gardaí to be called as a method of intimidation when a migrant protests at dispersal. Conlan deplores the ‘culture of disbelief’ that has sprung up around asylum claims and noted that with the intense interview process, applicants are likely to make some small omissions or mistakes which are then held against them in the process.

At its worst, the acceptance rate was 1.3% and the appeal success rate 10%. The European average is 25%. Conlan said decision makers can find it hard to imagine the dynamics of another country, and added that many migrants may come from countries where the authorities, especially the police may not be trusted. Now, after much scrutiny, acceptance rates are 10% first instance. She posits that we were probably getting it wrong the whole time.

 

Conflict between the staff and migrants in direct provision facilities were the subject of a piece by the Sunday World recently. The complaints procedure in centres was held by the High Court to be deficient and needing reform. Sue Conlan spoke about the tension and what she identifies as underlying racism of the staff in the particular centre identified in the piece. Staff staged a walk-out after an argument about heating up a baby’s bottle. They then said they were subject to intimidation and did not feel safe in their workplace. Conlan suggested this ‘intimidation’ was an exaggeration and pointed to another example where a prominent figure in the campaign against direct provision was threatened with eviction from her mobile home after her eldest child moved to university in Galway for five days a week. This tension in the system is an unhealthy environment for the children in these centres. Two thirds of the residents of the centre in the Sunday World article are children under 18.

 

In light of the grave problems of system that were presented by our speakers, it seems the equality the Minister spoke of as a hallmark of a developed society is severely lacking in Ireland. Following Friday’s High Court decision, it remains to be seen to what extent the direct provision system will be changed to better protect the rights of those seeking safety and security in our country.

Aisling Hourihane

Tenants’ Rights Talk

On 29th October Trinity FLAC held a talk on the rights and obligations of tenants given by Gary Byrne of Threshold and Frank Brady of the PRTB.

Gary Byrne was first to speak. He provided a very useful summary of the rights and obligations of tenants in private rented accommodation. He explained a number of key rights including the right to exclusive enjoyment of one’s home, the minimum standards of accommodation a tenant can expect, and the entitlement to a rent book He then spoke about the obligations of tenants including the obligation to pay rent in full and on time, to avoid anti-social behaviour and to keep the property n good order.

Byrne noted that a landlord has the right to review the rent after the first 12 months of a tenancy and that a tenancy cannot be reviewed during the first 12 months unless there has been a substantial change made to the nature of the accommodation. A rent review can only happen if 28 days notice is given in writing. The audience were also informed of procedures for ending a tenancy.

Byrne remarked that issues related to deposit retention accounts for a huge amount of Threshold’s work and welcomed proposals to amend the Residential Tenancies Act to create a deposit protection scheme

Frank Brady began his speech with an explanation of the role of the PRTB. The organisation works to resolve disputes and register tenancies. Interestingly, he expressed concern about the proposed deposit protection scheme. He said that under the current system, most deposits are returned quickly and that the proposed change will slow down deposit returns for everybody as each tenant will have to seek the return of their deposit from a third party.

His speech was very informative and useful to students as he explained common problems students have encountered with landlords in his experience and how these disputes are usually resolved. He explained that in deposit retention cases it is very difficult for an adjudicator to find in favour of the tenant when the landlord, as is often the case, has photographs of the property before and after the tenancy as well as invoices for repairs and cleaners. He suggested that tenants should ask their landlord for an inspection before the tenancy ends. For if the landlord refuses to inspect the property, the tenant’s chances before the PRTB increase.

He cautioned the audience against anti-social behaviour as persistent parties or loud music can be grounds for terminating a tenancy and also warned that if something is wrong with the property it does not entitle the tenant to not pay rent.

Fergal McConnon