I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was young, which excited my sense of fairness. I grew up in rural Australia where racism was rife and – even to a primary school kid – injustice was all around. A number of the boys I went to school with ended up in jail before I had finished high school. I wanted to try to change the world, if only a little, and for me the law has provided that instrument of change.
I qualified at Minter Ellison in Perth. Big-firm law was not for me, but Minters provided discipline in argument and drafting that has stood me in good stead. Over the years, a lot of my work has been as much about social work as law: first, working with vulnerable people in a human rights context, and, more recently, with decision-makers to influence reform of the justice system. Both require building relationships of trust and confidence, as well as having the winning argument.
Shortly after I qualified, I found myself working for a grassroots human rights organisation in India. On a daily basis in my office, I would have proud elderly Afghan men taking off their shirts to show me the scars of torture. Once I represented a woman whose two young boys – aged 9 and 11 – had been killed by the mujahideen 20 years earlier. They were decapitated and left on her doorstep with threats carved into their torsos. I’d have nightmares; sometimes I still do. But I have had friends killed – in Sri Lanka, Uganda and Russia – for doing human rights work, so I do not complain.
I spent 10 years at Interights doing international human rights litigation on cases in eastern Europe, in former Soviet Union countries and in African jurisdictions. It was enormously satisfying seeing a good number of these cases change the case law: on domestic violence, trafficking, reproductive rights, among others. I even managed to (legally) bust a few men out of underground cells in Egypt where they were being tortured. One still writes to me – addressing every letter to ‘Brother Coomber’. I have told him I am a woman but it does not seem to register.
The most significant thing that has happened to my career has been joining Justice. It is an honour to lead such an important organisation into its 60th year. When I joined Justice four years ago, it was suggested to me that I would miss international travel (I do not) and that working on the UK justice system would be a comedown after years of working on human rights violations. It is true that the work is less confronting, but the more I have learned about how justice works in this country, the more my sense of fairness has been offended.
The vast majority of ordinary people in the UK are excluded from the civil justice system, unable to qualify for legal aid and unable to afford lawyers or expose themselves to costs risks. It has been enormously satisfying to see Justice’s proposals for reform of civil justice and other areas take hold. But there is still much that needs to be done, including in crime and family, where people’s liberty is at stake or people’s children are being taken away from them.
There is no question that the hardest part of my job is keeping a small charity afloat. Justice runs on a shoestring and is reliant upon the generosity of individuals and corporates who appreciate the importance of our work. This year we have set ourselves the challenge of raising £1.2m to transform Justice and keep us public-facing and forward-looking.