Given that neither of us have yet seen the Women in Law exhibition at the Royal Courts of Justice, Keina and I arrange to meet in the main hall to browse the pop up displays of women prominent in the legal profession over the past hundred years.

‘I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I’m a bit underwhelmed,’ says Keina. Given the importance of the subject matter – dear to both our hearts – we are energetic in our discussions about how the exhibition deserved something more imaginative and high tech. Even just suspending banners from the middle stairwell would have given it more of a fanfare. Interactive displays would have been great.

Still, at a time when there are so many day to day challenges within the arena of human rights law and when legal aid and the very fabric on which our practices exist is under threat, I am heartened to spend some time with Keina.

Hers is a practice that encompasses human rights law, public inquiries and inquests, actions against the police, media law and the Court of Protection. Her work is both international and domestic with a particular focus on equality, non-discrimination and LGBT rights.

Despite still being fairly new to the Bar (call 2013, joining Doughty Street Chambers in 2015), she is regularly instructed by NGOs on issues relating to fundamental human rights. She has acted in the European Court of Human Rights and as an intervener in domestic, regional and international courts, including before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Committee.

Yet she combines this alongside her research position at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security (at the London School of Economics, from where she also holds a PhD) and studies the intersection between women’s rights, environmental rights and peace. She has taught at LSE, City University and the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana, so quite an academic pedigree, all in all.

MWS Why not choose corporate law?

KY I didn’t see it as a vehicle for social justice, especially where I was coming from.

Keina is from Northern Ireland where ‘there were no abortion rights nor LGBT rights’.

MWS Tell me about your route into practice?

KY I was working at ‘Women’s Link’, an international non-profit organisation based in Spain, that used the power of the law and strategic litigation to promote social change in advancement of women and girls’ human rights, especially those facing multiple inequalities. It was one of the only organisations doing this type of work at the time.

MWS So did you speak Spanish?

KY No, I learnt it on the job.

This is said in a modest way that rather undercuts the achievement. What was needed, apparently, was someone who could speak and write in both French and English. (It did not appear to occur to Keina that these were already quite impressive skills to have acquired!)

MWS Was there one particular case that influenced your decision to return to our shores and pursue a legal career in England and Wales?

KY Yes, it was BS vs Spain [47159/08 Judgment 24.7.2012] in the European Court of Human Rights, which was landmark in acknowledging the extreme vulnerability of African migrant women in prostitution within Europe. An intellectual and strategic stance was used to argue an intersectional approach to cases of race, gender and discrimination.  

I discover that after a year working at Women’s Link and, inspired by the BS case, Keina decided she needed to qualify as a lawyer. My impression was that she wanted to have the best tools at her disposal to make a difference and was spurred on by this rather than by personal ambition.

MWS Do you see yourself as an academic or as a practitioner first?

KY Neither. The beauty of law is that it can be many things at the same time; including drafting and shaping policy. One of the great things about having a legal education is that you can wear many hats at the same time.

MWS I’d like to turn to the work you have done in the peacekeeping centre in Ghana. I think I’m right in saying you designed and delivered there a program relevant to their conflicts covering the practicalities of human rights and women, peace and security.

KY Well... [again without even a flicker of self-importance] I went to teach feminist jurisprudence to peacekeepers, police officers, and those working on the ground largely from West Africa. The work was challenging. It involved discussing international humanitarian law, its inception and how it relates to the numerous and different conflicts that nations face today. I tried to ensure my lectures and classes were fact based and relevant.

MWS What do you think of the current situation in terms of the rights of women and minorities in the UK as against other European countries?

KY It feels as if there has been a roll back of rights; it seems as if we are always fighting to retain what has been achieved. The UK has recently been examined by CEDAW; its report picked up on austerity, the impact on women and the need for a firewall or a degree of insulation given the reductions to, and removal of, access to services.

MWS You strike me as someone very focused and meticulously organised. Where do you see yourself in five or ten years’ time?

KY No idea! [She says cheerily.] The joy is that, during your legal education, you need to plan and go through all the milestones, but I don’t have to do that now. I simply want to live consciously with values and be present – I definitely don’t want to get sucked into being part of a system. It would be easy to be swept up into a having a certain type of practice or lifestyle – I don’t want to become that person. It’s important to do different things.

MWS Where are you on work/life balance, which can be a bit of a challenge?

KY It is a struggle to balance. While I was more at the junior end, I used to be able to manage both roles (practice and teaching) full time, although, in the beginning, the Bar did come first. Increasingly, full-time academic posts involve a huge amount of administration. I would now say I still try to balance both depending on what is required, but at the moment, the balance has tipped towards full-time academic work, with the Bar a little more part-time.

I don’t think Keina noticed that what she was describing was a work/work rather than a work/life balance, but I got the sense that she was, nevertheless, somehow managing it all in a way that was working well.

MWS What advice would you give to young women wanting to come to the Bar now?

KY Go for it. If it’s what you want to do. But it is important to have a mentor and to go into it being realistic, know that there are massive differences between, for example, legal aid and criminal work and commercial practice.

MWS What about the benefits of working abroad? Has having a broader comprehension and perspective been helpful in your domestic as well as your international practice?

KY An international practice has helped me to understand that there are different ways of doing things, and different ways in which legal problems can be solved. This is important as a means to avoid getting stuck with one way of thinking and acting.

MWS Do you have a favourite quote?

KY [Without a moment’s pause:] ‘Climate change is a man-made problem that requires a feminist solution.’ (Mary Robinson) 

MWS And one of your favourite films?

KY Hidden Figures.

MWS That is one of mine too! Why for you?

KY The bathroom scene. I use it to teach as a real life example of intersectionality and of the law being unprepared; ie the reality of the black woman not being able to use the toilet for whites and needing to walk a distance to go to ‘their’ toilet and the impact that that had on her work and on her!

As we go our separate ways, I reflect on what drew me towards Keina as the subject of this interview. For those of us who have worked in these arenas for most or all of our careers, it is heartening to know that these values are being handed on and that there are practitioners, like Keina, who are ready, willing and able to rise to the challenge. It is good to know that the brief is being passed on.

Marcia Willis Stewart QC was interviewed by Martha Cover in the August 2019 issue of Counsel.