Lawyer of the Month: Jen Ang

Lawyer of the Month: Jen Ang

Jen Ang

Jen Ang is a firm believer that equality should be at the heart of the law and that, equally, the law should uphold those equalities. That isn’t always the case, though – which is why Ang co-founded social justice legal organisation Just Right Scotland in 2017.

Just Right has proved more successful than Ang could ever have imagined, with the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre, Scottish Refugee and Migrant Centre, Scottish Anti-Trafficking & Exploitation Centre, and Scottish Just Law Centre all operating under the main umbrella and all having success fighting public-interest litigation.

Now, after leaving Just Right earlier this year, Ang has set up a new venture – Lawmanity – with the simple aim being to make sure that “law works for humans”.

“For many people in Scotland our laws are not equal and they don’t treat people equally,” she says. “As someone who has taught and practised law for some time, in some ways I know that that’s inevitable.

“Laws are rules we come up with to shape society but people are diverse and different and most laws need to be tested and changed over time. We need people to speak up and say ‘these laws that we think work so well don’t work for me’. We see that in housing and benefits but also employment and education.

“Lawmanity is inviting people to come forward where they feel that there’s a law that isn’t treating them equally. What people often struggle with is the idea that the law can change or that practices can change for them. It’s about explaining to people the different ways that the law can change. It may be the case that you can litigate, but that’s not all you can do. It might be about challenging the practice – the law might be okay but the people administering it might need more training. And maybe the law itself needs to be changed.

“Lawmanity is a consultancy. In an ideal world I’d like to be able to offer direct advice about whether the issue is something that can be challenged in law – does the law itself need to be changed? – but it’s really there to be a resource for others. I’ll be working with community groups on how they can use the law as a tool for change.”

Funding for the work will be arranged on a case-by-case basis with crowdfunding and charitable donations likely to be in the mix. And, while Ang has been authorised to practise by the Law Society of Scotland, it is likely that any case she helps put together will be bought forward on a collaborative basis with other organisations, in much the same way Just Right’s work developed.

As a human rights practitioner, much of Ang’s professional interest is influenced by her own personal background. As a Chinese American, she says there was a 50-50 chance she was going to become a lawyer, but when she did the fact she comes from a family of immigrants led her to focus on the kind of issues that affect those starting from a position of disadvantage.

“I’m from an immigrant family and they say that in immigrant families your parents give you two choices – you can either be a doctor or a lawyer – and it’s absolutely true,” she says. “When I did biology in high school I cried when they presented me with an animal to dissect so I could never be a doctor. I’d always loved reading and writing and loved the idea of using the opportunities I’d had to help others so I did law.

“My father was a diplomat from when I was aged nine or 10 so I grew up living in many countries – in the Middle East and East Asia, including China. That impressed on me that I’m a citizen of the world but also that people treat you differently depending on how they see you. Sometimes you’re in a stronger position and sometimes you’re pretty vulnerable. That led to my interest in migrant justice.

“I had the opportunity growing up to work around refugees and had an experience myself on more than one occasion of having to flee a place due to unexpected conflict. I was in a very privileged position because of my father’s job, but we were in China until Tiananmen Square happened and we were in Iraq until the invasion of Kuwait. When it came to going to law school all of my heart was in working with refugees.”

Ang’s route to establishing Lawmanity has been circuitous, though. At the start of her career she was admitted to practise in New York, having studied law at Georgetown University in Washington DC, specifically choosing that institution because it had a migrant rights law clinic. During that time she had married a Scottish man and, after qualifying, they moved to the UK, with Ang taking a role in the City of London with magic circle firm Linklaters.

“It was the only way an American lawyer could work in the UK,” she says. “I had a real resistance to it. My father said ‘you think you dislike capitalism but you don’t know what it is – why don’t you give it a go then you’ll really understand?’.

“I spent two years in the corporate team there because that’s how long it takes to requalify as an English solicitor and I learned so much about legal skill. I did IPOs, equity financing – it’s very different to what I wanted to be doing but there’s a lot of cross over. I teach law at the Open University and have done since 2007.

“All lawyers want to be human rights lawyers but have to do their traineeships with corporate law firms. I always tell them to be long-sighted because they are investing in cultivating their skills – maybe it’s something you don’t enjoy but a lot is more transferrable than you think.”

After qualifying in England and Wales, Ang moved on to a London-based immigration firm then to the Immigration Advisory Service before relocating to Scotland when she had her first child. Finding herself in yet another legal jurisdiction Ang had to requalify again, going on to work in the Legal Services Agency in Glasgow. It was here that she met Just Right co-founder Kirsty Thomson, with the pair teaming up with Andy Sirel to launch the organisation in 2017.

“We saw that at the time, because of austerity and Brexit, law centres were running a model where there was a rising need for public interest lawyers,” she says. “Reducing local authority budgets and legal aid money meant the funding model was in danger – law centres make an enormous contribution but their funding models are unreliable. Just Right was an attempt to do something similar but to fund it in a different way.”

Just Right is supported by a range of backers including the Community Justice Fund, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, People’s Postcode Trust and the Access to Justice Foundation. And, while the kind of work it does is similar to that done by traditional law centres, with a strong social justice focus, the way it approaches it is different. Rather than simply looking at housing issues or benefits issues and trying to uphold clients’ rights within that framework, from the start Just Right picked individual cases that could strategically change how the law operates for everyone.

“Are you a woman fleeing violence, are you disabled, is this happening to you because of your LGBT identity?” is the question, Ang explains.

One case in point is the one brought by the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre – a collaboration between Just Right, Rape Crisis Scotland and the University of Strathclyde Law Clinic – on behalf of a claimant known as Miss M. The University of St Andrews student took the civil case against a man who had been cleared at criminal trial of raping her. The judge in the civil case found in her favour, ruling that she had been raped and that her rapist had to pay personal injury damages to her as a result (he later declared himself bankrupt so Miss M never received any of the money awarded).

“It had to do with a civil case seeking damages for rape,” Ang says. “The criminal case ended in a ‘not proven’ verdict and the civil case really threw open the re-examination of the ‘not proven’ verdict – how can you have harmed someone civilly but not be found guilty of rape? That was a really good example of a long-standing issue.

“It was only the second time that kind of case had been taken and for us it showed that our criminal justice system wasn’t treating rape survivors equally. We found a case that shone a light on that problem and that is leading to a change for everyone else [the Scottish government is currently discussing a bill that seeks to abolish the ‘not proven’ verdict].”

Another case cited by Ang was brought by Just Right and Maryhill Integration Network in 2022 and highlighted how migrant children who moved to Scotland were being locked out of higher university education due to rules around how fees are funded. Sirel’s team ran two cases that ended with the Court of Session ruling that linking young people’s right to a funded university place with their immigration status was a breach of their human rights. It was, Ang says, “a powerful win”.

“I’m so proud of everything Just Right has done and does,” Ang says. “It’s exceeded our expectations and will continue to do its work defending and extending people’s rights. I stepped down to allow it to grow. It was a bit like a child to me – with something that you found and you nurture there comes a time when it’s important to set it free. Emma Hutton was appointed CEO last year and it has such a strong leadership that this was the right moment to do that so I stepped aside and stepped down.”

Though Lawmanity is primarily a consultancy, it was incorporated as a legal practice at the beginning of May so will operate as a law firm too. Ang says its focus will be similar to that of Just Right but, as she is working on her own for the time being, will defer to Just Right depending on what type of work comes in.

“That will allow me to focus on more frontline and grassroots issues,” she says. “I’m really interested in community lawyering and being a part of movements and the legal practice will be about getting capacity for strategic litigation. Lawmanity will very much look at individual issues. A barrier to access to justice is that there are many great cases that aren’t taken because of the costs – I’ll be able to support people to do that.”

Share icon
Share this article: