“Age is just a number – but studying keeps the mind active”

Ghana born Anthony Mensah is graduating with an LLM Human Rights aged 78, and plans to devote his time and energy to fighting Female Genital Mutiliation (FGM) in sub-Saharan Africa.

Anthony with Professor Bill Bowring

I am originally from Ghana but came to the UK in 1966 as a trainee accountant, and am now a British citizen.

Sometime in 2011, I saw a newspaper advert for Birkbeck for a two year diploma course in Law. I applied, and was sent a problem question in the post to answer. I answered it to the best of my ability, and was invited to interview at the School of Law by the Dean at the time, Professor Patricia Tuitt. She was impressed with my performance, and I was thrilled when she invited me to enrol on the LLB course instead of the diploma.

My first and second years were a bit of a struggle, and a stark contrast between my professional accountancy course. Patricia Costall, an Academic Support Tutor, helped me understand how to write an academic essay and properly reference my work – I am very grateful for her help during my course and I know a lot of other students will agree with me that she was very helpful. I really enjoyed the lectures from most of my tutors; Fred Cowell, Piyel Halder, Adam Gearey, Leslie Moran and Patricia Tuitt, to name a few; and I had good relationships with my classmates.

My wife, Emma, was very excited for me throughout my studies. She gave me lots of good advice and encouragement.  I owe her an immeasurable debt of gratitude for the support and encouragement she has given me. Without her, I don’t think I would have got the marks in my LLB that I needed to proceed onto my LLM in Human Rights.

I decided to enrol on the LLM because I am passionate about tackling the complex Human Rights issues in Sub-Saharan Africa, where I am from. In particular, in the future I intend to lead a crusade against Female Genital Mutilation which is common practice in almost all countries on the continent.

I didn’t think about my age when I was applying. Age is just a number. However studying later in life is good for exercising the brain. So I would advise anyone thinking about starting a degree to start looking into it and making enquiries. You will feel so confident in yourself when you complete it.

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“The more I learn, the more I want to learn” – from ‘left behind’ to law degree

Firhana wasn’t sent to school as a child and only learnt to read and write at 15. With years of hard work, persistence and dedication, she’s achieved the extraordinary feat of gaining a master’s degree in Law – and now has plans for a PhD.

Growing up, the idea of studying for a degree wasn’t even on Firhana’s radar. She was raised in Oxford with her parents and five siblings but was never enrolled in school – something that only came to light when a doctor made a home visit and found that at 12 years old, Firhana wasn’t able to write a simple sentence. When asked why they didn’t send their daughter to school, her parents said, “in our culture, the daughters get married, have children, and run the household.”

She strongly believes her parents did their best for her within the cultural context that they knew, but going to school for the first time was very difficult. “I was quite severely bullied because I didn’t know how to read and write,” Firhana remembers. “A lot of the children at school obviously thought that if I was born in England, why couldn’t I read or write? Eventually I had a one-to-one tutor who went through letters and phonics with me. I mastered my alphabet at the age of 15, and slowly learnt how to read and write.”

“To be honest with you, I didn’t really understand what I was reading at first. I used to look at the pictures and try to make out the story as I was going along. I didn’t really try to help myself because I had missed so much so I thought there was no point. Eventually, when I was about 19, I finished the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That was my favourite book.”

After she had her own daughters in her twenties, she knew she wanted to get a proper education to help her children get ahead in life. Today, after years of hard work and close, careful guidance from dedicated teachers, she is graduating with a master’s degree in Law from Birkbeck, University of London with merit, after gaining a 2.1 in her bachelor’s degree in 2012. Next, she plans to apply for a PhD looking into sexual violence in Asian communities. “Who would have thought there was going to be degree after degree for a typical Pakistani housewife who missed out on most of her primary and secondary education?!” she laughed.

Firhana is a passionate advocate for women and girls in Asian communities, and wrote her master’s dissertation on the grooming gangs in Cowley, Oxford where she grew up. “If I had any power,” she says, “I would ask the government to look at legislation which deals with violence towards women, especially women of colour. I feel like there’s not enough said or done because people are culture sensitive. I think the government should also aim to get women over 30 or 40 back into education. I think a lot of women in my era missed out and they feel like they don’t have the opportunities.”

Birkbeck’s evening study model suited Firhana, who was able to combine her studies with working and family life. Her daughter, Aisha, was starting her A levels at the same time as Firhana started university – “we were study buddies!” she said. “Today my daughter is an A level teacher in a really good school, and she’s also doing her master’s at Birkbeck. My other daughter is studying English Literature and Creative Writing, and my son’s at grammar school preparing for his GCSEs. He plans to go on and study Medicine.”

“Birkbeck has changed my life and my family’s life for the better. It has just had such a massive impact. What we show our children is what they will follow. I showed mine love for books and education because my teachers showed me their love for books. Now I feel like I have been empowered with the gift of knowledge. I am on a journey of learning more and more every day, because the more I learn the more I want to learn.”

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Strategic litigation: anti-racism in the courtroom?

Rebecca Sparrow, second year LLM student, discusses a recent event about how to challenge structural and state-sanctioned racism in law.

The Centre for the Research of Race and Law’s most recent event, Strategic Litigation: Anti-Racism in the Courtroom?, hosted two panels, each of which broadened understandings of what strategic litigation does and might look like. How, whether, and when to litigate, and how to ethically, and effectively occupy Mari Matsuda’s ‘multiple consciousnesses’ of working within and against the law, is a constant and pressing concern for anyone involved in social justice or political campaigns, critical academia and legal advocacy. This set of workshops provided a stimulating space for discussion and exploration of this fraught battleground of the law, particularly in the context of challenges to structural and state-sanctioned racism, including in its ever-increasing formulation through immigration policy.

In the first session, Ioannis Kalpouzos from the Global Legal Action Network suggested a challenge to Upendra Baxi’s suggestion that all political issues of salience in the second half of the 20th Century must be articulated through human rights. Kalpouzos described the Network’s efforts to use the International Criminal Court to challenge offshore detention in Australia, a country he described as the ‘envy of the Western world’ when it comes to brutal immigration regimes. He explored the potential of using International Criminal Law to name and label western state-sanctioned violence – even when that violence is not spectacular or radical, but bureaucratic and all-pervasive. This raised questions from the audience about whether using criminal law might exceptionalize particular moments of violence, and therefore also serve to normalise violence that we should be pushing to be accepted as human rights violations. The responses to these questions made the particularly strategic nature of such litigation clear.

Lewis Kett from Duncan Lewis Solicitors, one of the main law firms with legal aid contracts to represent those in UK immigration detention, spoke about his recent successful case challenging laws on segregation in immigration detention centres. Although this, and previous wins of Duncan Lewis’, have been important, and provided some of the only real positive changes to detention policy in recent years, Kett also expanded on the extent of the problems within existing policy, and how much further there is to go. In response to queries from workshop participants, he reflected on whether improving structurally violent institutions such as detention can serve to make them more palatable without removing their inherent violence, but concluded that as a solicitor it is ethically impossible not to litigate for reform where possible, not only to change practice but also to provide accountability, and as part of wider campaigns.

The second panel began with Muhammad Rabbani, the director of CAGE recently charged and convicted under terrorism legislation for refusing to hand over the passwords to his mobile phone and laptop in Heathrow airport. He was stopped under Schedule 7, the law introduced in 2000 that sees 50,000 people per year stopped in airports, with no right to remain silent, to seek legal advice, to refuse a strip search or the handing over of data. The 99.8% non-arrest rate, as Rabbani highlighted, signifies a breach of the Magna Carta principles against suspicionless arrest. Rabbani asked brave, poignant questions about how he might have been treated, both during his arrest and during legal proceedings, particularly when unable to find any lawyer willing to submit a judicial review on his behalf because he had a ‘pigmentation problem’, and so wasn’t considered ‘the ideal case’. Thus Rabbani questioned the possibilities for strategic litigation when the law is actively constructed to target Muslims. Where, in this context, is the space for strategic litigation? Rabbani had to take his strategy beyond the courtroom and run his own campaign.

Gracie-Mae Bradley’s presentation followed on perfectly from Rabbani’s warnings. She spoke about her experience both within human rights organisation Liberty, and as an organiser of the Against Borders for Children (ABC) campaign. In particular, she highlighted ways in which litigation, however strategic, is severely compromised if it is not accompanied or preceded by wide-reaching social campaigns. She drew attention to previous strategic wins in the context of UK immigration detention, such as the retracting of the Detained Fast Track programme, and the way in which the Home Office is finding ways to re-introduce slight variations on the same policies only a couple of years later. Litigation, she reminded us, is a way of challenging policy that is fully incorporated within the limits of the system that created it, and controversial policy changes are often actively channeled by Government into legal frameworks, as the delays entailed by public consultations often mean that any successful litigation has to be applied retrospectively, which makes old policies easier to reinstate later. Quoting Gary Bellow, himself quoted by Derrick Bell, in the context of Leroy Clark’s insistence that an over-reliance on the law limited the potential of the black community’s success in pushing for school desegregation in the South, Bradley noted that ‘rule change, without a political base to support it, just doesn’t produce any substantial result because rules are not self-executing: they require an enforcement mechanism.’ Thus she showed that ‘riding on a technicality’, to which much strategic litigation must often be confined, though often crucial, is never enough to establish real change alone. Using the examples of data collection in schools that can be used to inform the Home Office of undocumented children and their parents, she argued that litigation must be accompanied by campaigns that highlight the implications and mechanisms of damaging policies, rather than just channelling the technicalities of their implementation.

Shining a light from a different direction, though with many of the same implications, Chai Patel explored the difficulties litigating strategically in anti-racist campaigns, when many of the effects of harmful and racist policy are not quantifiable in the terms required by the law. Speaking about the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ attempts to challenge the Right to Rent legislation of 2016, Patel described the insidious ways in which even though the requirement on landlords to ensure the immigration status of their tenants encouraged, in their own words, discrimination on the basis of perceived race or nationality, it was very difficult to quantify and record such prejudice. In particular, the detail that landlords will be fined for not checking documents if tenants are found to be residing unlawfully, but not for failing to check if they are legally renting, encouraged this discrimination. Thus the detail in the legislation makes it particularly likely to encourage biased assessments of prospective tenants’ immigration status. It also makes it particularly hard to collect data, pushing all conclusions into the realm of the hypothetical. Although litigation might, in this case, be one way to challenge the policy, it has been incredibly hard to show that it was the policy itself that was causing discrimination.

To sit in a room with such a broad mix of academics and practitioners, getting absorbed in the details, methods, implications, ethics, efficacy and revolutionary potential of strategic litigation against racist policy was inspirational. The mood was neither of cynical criticism nor naively hopeful for impossible change. And though the workshop participants, panellists and audience, provided necessary and timely reminders not to put all our faith in litigation, however strategic, the conference itself was inspiring testament to Rabbani’s moving encouragement that if we strive for compassion and courage, much is possible.

 

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Why Should Britain keep its Human Rights Act?

This post was contributed by Devin Frank Law (LLM) graduate. Devin attended Bianca Jagger’s speech at the School of Law’s annual Patrick McAuslan Lecture on Friday, November 6  

Bianca Jagger

Bianca Jagger

We all see the signs in the tube, listen to the debates in the evening news and read the contrasting opinions in the Daily Mail and The Guardian.

Should David Cameron’s majority government scrap the Human Rights Act? Should they lead us out of the Convention of Europe? Should the UK exit the European Union?

On Friday 6 November 2015 long-time human rights activist and the Council of Europe Goodwill Ambassador Bianca Jagger spoke at Birkbeck to give an enlightened and informative perspective on the UK’s current human rights debate.

While Bianca’s talk did indeed have the emotion, humour and flair one might expect from a human rights rockstar (figuratively speaking) — her talk was also a well-researched and academically sound historical analysis of how Britain developed its long standing and legally robust human rights tradition.

From Magna Carta to migrant crisis

Bianca began her talk by reminding us that Britain was not always a democracy governed by the rule of law. For most of its existence England had a Monarch who answered neither to Parliament nor the people and governed with absolute authority. In the year 1215 this began to change when King John bound himself to the Magna Carta; however, and as Bianca persuasively argued, the principles emanating out of the Magna Carta took 800 years to root themselves in law culminating with the 1998 Act of Parliament — the Human Rights Act.

We were also reminded throughout Bianca’s talk that 730 years after the Magna Carta the people of Europe endured the worst abuse of authority and government power in the continent’s history. In the context of the current debate – should the UK leave the council of Europe – Bianca reminded us that following the horrors of the Second World War, the general consensus of ‘never again’ UK authorities led the way in drafting and establishing the 1950 European Convention of Human Rights.

In the context of the current migration crisis Bianca did state that 65 years after the ratification of the European convention of Human Rights, it’s odd and indeed counterintuitive that in the midst of yet another humanitarian catastrophe, British Politicians are looking to reduce and take away the rights of the people.

One might argue that British politicians are simply looking for political ways to reduce their moral, ethical and legal responsibilities; however, and through her talk, Bianca argued that ‘our’ human rights are the result of hard fought battles and elements of British Society that we the people must defend.

A weak UK Human Rights Act

Bianca JaggerThe underlining message and golden thread of Bianca’s talk was that human rights belong to the people and are there to protect the people. Everyday otherwise normal people rely on their human rights in housing and employment tribunals, in cases against their local councils and in situations where individual police officers attempt to overstep their authority. An important example is the relationship between our democratic duties as citizens and our right to protest when we feel that our political representatives have led us astray.

In closing this blog, I will attempt to leave you with a rather simplistic observation. Bianca’s argument is that we need our human rights and any attempt to weaken our legal rights is an attack on the society we have spent 800 years building.

However, I would point out the Britain’s Human Right’s legal framework is already weak. Compared to other similar countries, Germany or Canada for example, the UK’s Human Right’s Act is incapable of declaring a government decision or policy unconstitutional. If Parliament is truly intent on ignoring human rights, they can.

Perhaps than, what should be taken from Bianca’s talk and this simple observation is that it is as important now as ever before to not only defend the human rights that we do have, but to continue to build a society based on the rule of law and the individual rights of citizens i.e the battle has been hard fought but there is still work to be done.

The message should therefore be that instead of taking three steps backwards and abolishing the Human Rights Act, we should be taking five steps forward and not only protecting the Human Rights Act but actively working to strengthen it so as to ensure that our rights are truly and genuinely protected.

View the Patrick McAuslan lecture 2015 below:

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