This month, we interviewed the inspirational barrister Shauneen Lambe, co-founder and executive director of Just for Kids Law. Founded in 2006, Just for Kids Law works to reframe the way the criminal justice system interacts with children. Shauneen explains how they are working to deliver advocacy, support and assistance to young people in difficulty. She also shares more about her personal journey, explains why she thinks the UK vilifies children, and the need for innovation in the UK justice system.
Interview by Stephanie van de Werve, Communications and Marketing Manager at Aleron
Just For Kids Law

Aleron: How would you describe Just for Kids Law’s goals and practice model?

Shauneen Lambe: Our goal is to help children with legal difficulties to get their lives back on track. We have a holistic, 360 degree approach, where we try to look at all the difficulties in their lives and stabilize all aspects. Young people come to us when they have a legal issue, they maybe homeless or are no longer in school, and we offer them our services. We usually get contacted by parents, teachers or social workers.

When their lives are back on track we give them the opportunity to become socially active. We run a lot of youth-led campaigns where young people engage with the community. In the last Youth-led campaign, Let us Learn, we had over 50 young people demonstrating outside the Supreme Court.

Aleron: When did your interest in the youth justice sector start? What was the trigger?

Shauneen: In 1999, I was working in the southern United States, in New Orleans, Louisiana, and helping to represent people on death row. At that time, they were still executing children; it wasn’t until 2008 that the law was finally overturned and those under the age of 18 could no longer be sentenced to death. So one of the projects I was working on was abolishing the juvenile death penalty.

On one of the projects I was working on, a number of my clients facing the death penalty were aged only 17. It was really obvious, when you looked back over their lives, that if there had been an earlier intervention at some point, you could have changed where they ended up. No one was looking at what they really needed. That was the first trigger.

What is so amazing to me is that we always go back over someone’s life at the end of it and think: what could we have done? If we really think prevention is more effective than cures, then let’s jump in at a point where that person’s intervention should be.

Aleron: What was your motivation for launching JfK Law?

Shauneen: The foundation of it all is obviously human rights, but I didn’t see it that way at the time. For me, providing legal representation to people is never solving their problem, it is only solving one part of a bigger problem. It is similar to a doctor fixing your finger, but then having your arm fall off. It is very isolated and not at all effective. With my co-director, Aika, we started talking about the problems young people were facing and how we could help. We realized that 85% of the young people that I was representing and she was working with were out of mainstream schools. It is an extraordinarily high number.

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Shauneen is a barrister in the UK and an attorney in the USA, where she represented people facing the death penalty. She helped establish the charity Reprieve for Clive Stafford Smith and remained a board member until 2006. In 2006, with Aika Stephenson, she founded Just for Kids Law. Shauneen was chosen as World Economic Forum ‘Young Global Leader’ in 2010; a Shackleton Leader in 2011; one of NESTA/The Observer’s ‘Britain’s New Radicals’ in 2012 and was elected an Ashoka Fellow in the same year. In 2013 she was a finalist in the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards and Liberty’s Human Rights Lawyer of the Year.  She is proud to be the UK Chair of Global Dignity and a trustee of the charities Birthrights and The Barings Foundation. In May Shauneen was selected for the Eisenhower Fellowships Women’s Leadership Program 2015.

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Follow Just for Kids Law on Twitter @justforkidslaw and read more at justforkidslaw.org

The youth justice system in the UK

Aleron: How is the UK different to other EU Countries in terms of Youth Laws?

Shauneen: We perceive young people in the UK very differently, and they are often vilified. 80% of the headlines about young people use pejorative terms like “Thugs”, “Hoodies” or “Hoodlums.” We have one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility – only 10 years old, lower than any other European country. We have the highest rate of incarceration among children. For example, France only has 2 children serving life sentences, while we have over 600 – and France has a bigger population.

Aleron: From an historical perspective, can you explain why the UK has adopted an increasingly punitive stance towards children?

Shauneen: It’s because of the USA’s influence. The Americans took our justice model, which is very familiar to us, and adapted it. In the late eighties and nineties in the States it became extremely punitive. There is now a 1 in 3 chance that you will end up in prison if you are an African-American. The prison industry in America is enormous – good for creating jobs but hugely expensive for the state and very punitive towards children and youths.

We followed this shift, because we followed what America was doing in cities like New York and Los Angeles. And so did the young people – the gang culture that we see here is copied from the States.

Aleron: You focus on prevention for children who need vital legal support. How do you also support them in other areas of their lives?

Shauneen: The children we help are very disadvantaged. Our model is quite different from a lot of other models of child work or social services because our work is specifically based on the priorities identified by the child.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the foundation of everything we do, and we look at it to guide us. It is the most ratified convention in the world. One key part of the convention is Article 12, which is the child’s right to be heard, to have an opinion. We use that as our fundamental principle. Social services will act in what they believe is the child’s best interest, and they do not always listen to what the child has to say. This is perfectly understandable as sometimes a child can be influenced by a family member, unable to speak up, and or even unaware of what they want to get out of the situation.

What we do is to bring the child’s voice into the room. Even if the decision does not go their way, we make them feel they were part of the process, that they have been considered and heard.

Aleron: How successful were you in reframing the way the criminal justice system interacts with children in the UK?

Shauneen: I think it’s moving in the right direction. I am not sure it’s there yet but we have definitely been a part of the change; we are a player but I would not want to claim it as ours. We have been involved in some of the big programmes that have changed the course of children’s lives.

Social Impact and Innovation

Aleron: How can we encourage more social innovation in the UK?

Shauneen: The legal profession, the legal aid part of social justice, is in a crisis in the UK because there’s been major legal aid cuts in the previous years and it’s almost unsustainable at the moment. What I learnt in the States, because there was not a strong welfare state, is that it was only through innovation that you could provide quality services. Desperation creates innovation. I was lucky to have experienced that because when we came and set up here we looked for new paths to make changes and luckily survived through all the legal aid crashes.

Aleron: Ashoka believes that everyone can be a change-maker. How do you feel that JfK Law is a change maker in society?

Shauneen: We are definitely changing young people’s lives but we are also changing the way that they engage in society. Nothing makes me happier than seeing 50 young people demonstrating outside the Supreme Court, all of them wanting to study at university. They have designed and worked for it all themselves but we brought them together to do so.

Aleron: How is Ashoka supporting you practically?

Shauneen: Ashoka has been amazing because it has supported me personally, as opposed to the organisation. It’s been a real advantage for the organisation to have someone supporting me because it has made me a better version of me. All the stuff that was really dragging me down, the nitty gritty, Ashoka helped me with.

By meeting the other Ashoka fellows you also realise that everybody is on the same journey, some are ahead of you, some are behind, but you can share you fears and successes. It’s a team of people who are doing totally different things but are your allies in some kind of big social justice cause. I loved getting to know the other Ashoka fellows.

Ashoka has also been helpful to me to look at how we can grow and be more effective. They constantly provide resources and support for me. For the first time I felt like I was not alone, that I had a team supporting me.

Aleron: Is social impact your fundamental drive?

Shauneen: Yes, definitely, and I always wonder how to have the biggest impact. By doing death penalty work in America, you may save some people but is it the most valuable use of your time? You could be going to Africa to administer Malaria medication and saving thousands. Then you realize it’s not about numbers, it’s about individuals. In the UK, I know that very few people are going to fight for the rights of young people all the way through the case, but we are prepared to do that. This impact starts with individuals, but eventually it will expand and impact the entire society.

ashoka
Ashoka is a non-profit organization dedicated to finding and fostering social entrepreneurs worldwide. Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with nearly 3,000 Ashoka Fellows in 70 countries putting their system changing ideas into practice on a global scale.
Founded by Bill Drayton in 1980, Ashoka has provided start-up financing, professional support services, and connections to a global network across the business and social sectors, and a platform for people dedicated to changing the world. Ashoka launched the field of social entrepreneurship and has activated multi-sector partners across the world who increasingly look to entrepreneurial talent and new ideas to solve social problems.