“I chose law to fight for what’s right and make a difference”

Human rights lawyer Niresha Umaichelvam talks about helping clients struggling with everything from homelessness to accusations of witchcraft, her fears for the future of UK human rights, and the taboos that can exist in South Asian culture regarding mental health.
Niresha Umaichelvam is a woman of Sri Lankan descent with long, curly black hair. She is smiling and sits next to a vase of pink and white flowers wearing a white blouse.
Photograph: Niresha Umaichelvam

My parents left Sri Lanka during the civil war. They were young and smart, but they came to the UK in search for better opportunities due to the riots in Sri Lanka. They had to acclimatise to a new culture and new way of life, and they sometimes faced racism when they got here. They went through a lot for me, and I was brought up to understand the sacrifices they made and the importance of education.

I chose a career in law to fight for what's right and to make a difference. I eventually found my calling halfway around the world. In my second year of university, I got an internship at the Women's Legal Centre, a pro bono legal advice centre in Cape Town. We represented women who were being targeted and persecuted for a whole range of things, from having abortions to accusations of witchcraft.

I took part in training sessions led by South African attorneys delivered to the South African police force. This was to raise awareness and challenge the behaviour of police officers towards female sex workers. The officers physically harmed and sprayed them with pepper spray. It was our job to stand up and defend the sex workers. During the training, the police officers didn't take the ethnic minority lawyers seriously when they challenged them – some even laughed! The opposite was true for Caucasian lawyers, who had exactly the same levels of knowledge and competence.

Justice is important to me. I'm passionate about making sure vulnerable people don't get left behind because of their gender, race, financial conditions or anything else. I've also seen how much unconscious bias there can be in law and I wanted to be part of a profession that changed that. That's why I became a human rights lawyer.

I'm worried about the future for human rights in this country. The field I work in now is called community care. I challenge local authorities to support human rights. Many of my clients are very vulnerable; they may have a home at the start of the day but by its end they might be threatened with homelessness. I also help a lot of young people who have fallen through cracks in the care system. It's amazing when we can help get them back on track and get them the support they deserve.

Keeping an emotional distance can be hard. It's sometimes tough to come home and split from what you've seen and heard that day. This is being made tougher in the face of constant cuts to legal aid, the changes to judicial review proposed by the government and its new Bill of Rights.

A lot of cases in my field involve challenging local authorities through judicial review. The government's proposals risk making it harder for reviews to be granted. It makes you question where is the justice in all of this? The whole point of human rights – and the safeguarding of them – is to make sure everyone can access and receive justice.

Not talking about your feelings and hiding emotions can be a big part of South Asian culture. That's understandable when you think about how our parents have had to flee wars and have faced abuse and racism. It's led to a taboo in South Asian culture about talking about mental health.

My generation is breaking down barriers and talking about mental health more. No one should feel scared or stigmatised. There are a lot of things we are grateful for but there are others we need to get past. Talking about mental health is one of them.

I had a great mentor (and you would not mess with her!) Savita Sukul is a sole practitioner at SJS Solicitors and has had a profound impact on shaping my career and work ethic. Some of the cases – particularly family ones – were really upsetting. But she fought tooth and nail and always did everything she could to get results for her clients. She taught me that if you believe in something you must see it through and keep pushing for it. There is justice at the end of the road: the only question is how far and long you fight for it.

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