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Dr Katie Boyle joined the Just Fair Board of Trustees in 2021. To mark Trustee Week, Katie has written a blog reflecting on both her own journey to Just Fair’s board, and the growth of Just Fair over the last 10 years.

I had the opportunity to join Just Fair as a trustee in April 2021 and felt it was a unique opportunity to contribute to the work of an organisation that plays a fundamental role in ensuring an evidence-led approach to human rights in the UK. Just Fair has for just over a decade has worked tirelessly to change our understanding of human rights in the UK to include economic and social rights, an area so often dismissed based on an out-dated interpretation of the rights as being aspirational in nature rather than legal obligations. This work plays an incredibly important role in our democracy because without an informed discussion on the future progression of rights we risk assigning ourselves to the mistakes of the past.

It is my privilege to make a small contribution as a trustee. In the short time I have been with Just Fair I have been overwhelmed by the commitment and energy of staff and stakeholders who together coalesce for positive social change across the UK (have a look at Just Fair’s inspiring theory of change). This is no easy feat and the success of the organisation and its partners are testament to this hard work. Equally, the importance and relevance of the work continues to resonate as the impact of austerity and the onset of the pandemic exacerbate already deeply entrenched inequality and poverty. Just Fair has the opportunity to contribute to improving people’s lives in terms of promoting human rights and social justice as well as ensuring proper accountability for human rights harms.

As part of trustee week I am very happy to share with you my own personal journey and how this led me to joining Just Fair. I grew up in the south side of Glasgow in the 1980s and experienced a wonderful childhood surrounded by a beautiful blend of cultures and people in an area called Pollokshields (they say people make Glasgow and it is true). I went St Brides primary in Govanhill and then to Holyrood Secondary School in Toryglen, the largest state school in Europe, and again had the privilege from an early age of meeting every walk of life from every corner of the world as part of hugely diverse schools. Our house was filled with books about peace and justice in South Africa, the legacy of Pincochet regime in Chile and struggles for democracy around the world, the Clydeside strikes and social struggles at home and abroad. Glasgow played a role in supporting Nelson Mandela by awarding him Freedom of the City in 1981 and in challenging the Pinochet regime by refusing to service military jets following the 1971 coup – what a legacy. My granny came from Buncrana in Ireland and we grew up on stories of the struggles around the border and the devastating impact of poverty on securing peace. My granny was a justice and peace advocate all her life and we all grew up on this like the air you breathe. She always said cultivate optimism in the face of adversity and I took this on like a vocation – even when things are tough, find a way to try to seek justice out.

I could see with my own eyes when I began working in a local law firm at 14 – the absolute devastating impact of poverty on everyday quality of life. I became increasingly aware as I grew older that different demographics across society do not have an insight into how others live – in other words the devastating impact of poverty is largely invisible unless you have lived it yourself. The very brief insight my clients at work shared with me in the law firm close to my school was enough to spur me on to study law and to do my best to try and help – it was the age of devolution, the 1998 peace agreement and the Human Rights Act 1998 and I was full of hope.  As part of this pursuit it became increasingly clear over the course of my education that there was a huge, monumental, seismic hole in our understanding of poverty and human rights. Economic and social rights are legally binding rights that the UK has agreed to protect, and yet, they were largely ignored by our legal frameworks, our politicians, our courts and our public bodies. This absence was compounded by a long-standing misinterpretation of these rights as somehow less important than other rights and that they could only really be understood as ‘aspirational’ in nature. Anyone that has seen the devastating impact of poverty, austerity and the absence of security in living conditions will know that enabling these rights are not ‘aspirational’ but absolutely fundamental to living a life of dignity. Equally, international human rights treaties reiterate this position – the rights to food, housing, health, education, social security, labour rights, the right to freedom from poverty and destitution and the right to an adequate standard of living are all legally binding obligations and necessary for human life. I completed a degree in Law and French at the University of Strathclyde and undertook a PhD at the University of Limerick (Limerick very much being Ireland’s answer to Glasgow as a city) examining the ways in which economic, social and cultural rights could be better protected in Northern Ireland to support a transition to peace. In the meantime I qualified as a constitutional lawyer in Scotland, undertook my first teaching post at the University of Edinburgh and following completion of my PhD moved to a post in London to teach law to first generation law students at the University of Roehampton. In 2018 I moved back up to Scotland where I now work as an Associate Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of Stirling and I continue to engage in teaching, research and practice around human rights reform and social justice.

Everywhere I went across the UK and Ireland the same fundamental absence was apparent – human rights discourse and practice was missing the big fundamental building block of economic and social rights law. It has been a career mission to address this gap in the literature and practice – otherwise, it was clear to me that as a society we were leaving people without the tools to fight injustice.  I have been honoured that my research has contributed to closing this gap in discussions around progressive human rights reform in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and more recently in a global sense such as informing the post-Pinochet constitutional reform in Chile. I fear that the conversation in England and the UK still has some catching up to do both domestically and comparatively.

This is where Just Fair comes in and why the becoming a trustee presented as a unique and timely opportunity. I first learned of the work of Just Fair around 2014 and in the lead up to the UK’s last review under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2016. Just Fair is one of the first UK organisations that advanced an evidence-led informed position on economic and social rights and quite honestly transformed the conversation around these rights in the UK. The work of the organisation was fundamental to the rigorous appraisal of the UK’s performance in meeting its international human rights obligations under the CESCR process in 2016 and laterally the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Philip Alston, in 2018. Philip Alston’s report was very much a watershed moment for a wider realisation across the UK that the economic and social rights gap is untenable. The depth and breadth of Just Fair’s work would be too much to cover in this short blog but you can have a look at the different campaigns and research reports here. In terms of the next important milestone, the UK’s next CESCR review in 2022 is a pivotal moment in which Just Fair will lead a coalition of evidential responses in a Parallel Report and this will be key to informing discussions on reform in the years ahead – I’m keen to see how this work will help ensure informed discussions on the potential reach of progressive human rights reform, learning in particular from the devolved experience to help progress at the national level. And in terms of progress on the ground, Just Fair is building on participative research and engagement through a social rights alliance in which there is greater emphasis on empowering rights holders themselves to claim their rights. It is this powerful micro level capacity building together with macro level evidence-led and informed engagement that makes Just Fair a truly transformative initiative and I’m delighted to have the honour of making a small contribution to that journey as a trustee.