This year marked the inaugural RebLaw Scotland conference, held at the University of Glasgow. RebLaw is a movement of ‘rebellious lawyering’ and originating from Yale Law School and being the largest student-run public interest conference in the United States, seeks to address how the law can be used as a tool for social justice.
Although relatively new to the UK, following the first successful conference in London last year, the co-founders of RebLaw Scotland, Mairi McAllan, Katy MacAskill and Seonaid Stevenson, decided it was time for the conference to extend north of the border to address pressing issues Scottish society.
Aimed at lawyers, academics, and students, the conference sought to bring together numerous branches of the Scottish legal community and pursue action on contemporary social challenges.
The day started with an introduction before three breakout panel discussion sessions, and a concluding panel discussion on ‘How can we be rebellious lawyers?’ Each breakout session, chaired by University of Glasgow student volunteers, sought legal answers to nine social problems. This structure gave attendees the opportunity to engage in different discussions, sampling several areas of expertise, in order to find out what is currently being done to tackle the identified challenges.
The introduction and key note speech was given by Professor Maria Fletcher from the University of Glasgow who considered traditional notions of liberty, and questioned what equality and justice really mean within the Scottish legal order. On social justice, Professor Fletcher detailed that in society, “those who are vulnerable do not have access to solicitors, and that only increases vulnerability.” She concluded that rebellious lawyers need skills of “resilience, empathy and community” to challenge the status quo and help those who need it most.
The first break-out session of the day posed the following pertinent questions: ‘Is the Scottish legal system doing enough to protect refugees?’; ‘Will the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill help us better combat domestic abuse?’ and ‘Discussing legal responses to homelessness’.
On refugees’ rights, Professor Sarah Craig, senior law lecturer at the University of Glasgow, answered in short, that “the Scottish legal system is not doing enough to support refugees. But, neither is any system.” Andy Sirel, Associate of JustRight Scotland detailed the difficulties refugees face when entering a ‘hostile environment’ in the UK notwithstanding the hardship faced in their journey, before Wafa Shaheen, Head of Services of the Scottish Refugee Council, concluded: “The system is broken.”
An energised audience of delegates questioned: ‘what can we do, as young lawyers, to make a change?’ and ‘how do we tackle judicial bias in the Immigration and Asylum system?’, before panellists determined how we in the Scottish legal community can combat these challenges. When asked about the conference at a later date, Andy Sirel stated: “It was a pleasure being invited to speak at Reblaw Scotland 2017. The day had a great collection of practitioners sharing their experience. From the support of refugees to the impact of austerity, the conference tackled critical issues where there is injustice – I hope that it inspired the next generation of lawyers to use their skills to fight for those who are denied their rights and freedoms.”
With delegates now fired up break-out session two began in earnest asking: ‘Scotland’s approach to tackling human trafficking-is it working?’; ‘Is justice suffering as a result of legal aid cuts?’ and; ‘Will gender pay gap reporting have a positive impact on the lives of working women?’ On gender pay gap reporting, Professor Jane Mair, law lecturer at the University of Glasgow, and Val Dougan, solicitor and member of the Law Society of Scotland’s Equality and Diversity Committee, held opposing views. Val Dougan highlighted the potential of gender pay gap reporting but noted that equality starts at home and – in contrasting the approach in Scotland with that of our Icelandic neighbours – stated that more should be done with regards shared parental leave. Jane Mair was more sceptical noting the continually shifting nature of the ‘gap’ and concluded “we must help women to challenge the system”.
The third breakout session of the day considered ‘Austerity and the UK Social Security System- How can lawyers challenge the negative effects of austerity?’; ‘protecting the rights of children in Scotland’ and ‘how can Scotland protect those at risk of forced marriage?’ On forced marriage (‘FM’), John Fotheringham, Consultant at Morton Fraser, opened with an account of the current law on FM and emphasised the “low incidence but high impact’ of FM. In response, Felicity Belton, Research Associate at the University of Glasgow, spoke of the importance of challenging stereotypes and considered the intersectional nature of the victims of FM noting that they are not only young women, but also “men, LGBT individuals, older women and people with disabilities.”
RebLaw Scotland founders Mairi McAllan, Katy MacAskill and Seonaid Stevenson led the final panel entitled ‘How can we be rebellious lawyers?’. Their aim – to spark a discussion on how junior lawyers and students can use their skills to be a force for progressive reform and assist under served communities.
Mairi McAllan opening on the power of political activism spoke of her desire to join a process where “societal injustice was corrected” and stressed that political campaigning was one way to achieve social justice. Mairi was followed by Katy McAskill who spoke about her involvement with law clinics and sought to challenge the misconception that working in the commercial legal sector is a barrier to working for social justice. She stated that social justice can happen anywhere and that “lawyers in corporate firms can contribute to the public good”.
Finally, Seonaid Stevenson discussed young lawyers’ involvement in the third sector, and emphasised that “the legal world has a responsibility to ensure that people understand what rights they have.” Further, she stated that anyone within the legal system has the ability to bring to fruition a more just and equitable society, where even “young lawyers and law students can really make rights real.”
All three focused on how the legal community can contribute to social change, where Mairi conveyed the main message of the day: “It is a great honour to be a Scots lawyer…We are equipped with the power, knowledge and tools today, to fight for the fairer, more equal society we seek, tomorrow.’
The RebLaw Scotland team are determined that their inaugural conference will mark the beginning of a movement and while they plan and announce their next steps are encouraging those who wish to join the movement email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan Nelson and Christopher Clannachan are fourth-year LLB students at the University of Glasgow and RebLaw volunteers.