Alumni

Alumni profile - Charlotte Andrews-Briscoe

I work as a Research Associate at the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. At the moment we are working on a report about women who are sentenced to death for drug offences – which, shockingly, is the fastest-growing death-punishable offence globally.

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Why did you study your Bachelor of Laws at Queen Mary? What sparked your interest in this specific degree? Like many people, as a young child I was struck by the widespread injustice and inequality that I saw around me, and I wanted to do something about it. In my early teens, I thought I wanted to be a doctor, but I soon realised that I was awful at Chemistry(!), so instead I looked to law as the tool with which I could help people. After I finished school, I took a year out before university, and the volunteering that I did in that year, both in the U.K. and elsewhere, strengthened my ambition to use law as a force for good. At eighteen, the injustices I saw – for example when working for VSO with disabled children in Kenya – were formative for me. These experiences provided me with a clear focus from the start of my LL.B.  

Before and during your studies you occupied a variety of paid and volunteer roles both within the UK and globally, such as teaching in a secondary school in a remote region of Nepal and providing teaching assistance in a special needs primary school in Kenya. What inspired you to travel to remote, arguably off the beaten track places? And what inspired you to volunteer amongst the most marginalised and disadvantaged? First of all, I want to acknowledge my own privilege. While I worked to fund my volunteering and internships, my family always had my back, and I didn’t have any caring responsibilities or anything like that, which made my journey significantly easier than it would be for many young people. As for working abroad, I feel strongly that a person should never volunteer in another country doing something that they wouldn’t be capable of doing, or qualified for, in their own country. So, while I did teach in Kenya and Nepal, I also worked as a mentor for Debate Mate for three years during university. In that position, I ran a debating club for children in a socioeconomically disadvantaged primary school in London. It challenged me, but I was constantly in awe of the students who were able to engage with complex topics and relate them to their own lived experiences via sophisticated arguments.

In terms of why I work with marginalised communities, I believe that most human beings fundamentally want to feel that they are doing good in the world. So, when I am able to feel that I have made a positive difference in someone else’s life, it’s an honour. Working outside of the U.K. allows me to develop professionally by learning about different legal systems and ways of working, but also personally by learning new languages, new cultures, new cuisines, new ways of dancing. My experiences in other countries have been formative and have enabled me to begin to critically assess my own culturally-rooted assumptions.

Please can you tell me about your involvement with African Prisons Project (now Justice Defenders), both as a volunteer and then as a member of staff once you graduated? During the summer following the first year of my LL.B., I volunteered as a tutor with African Prisons Project (APP). I found APP to be a unique, radical and pioneering NGO. APP enrols prisoners and prison officers in Uganda and Kenya on the University of London International LL.B. program, so that they graduate with a law degree, and ultimately qualify as lawyers. Whilst still incarcerated, APP helps these prisoner-paralegals to start legal clinics from within the various prisons, and represent other prisoners. An estimated 80% of people in prison in Uganda have never been afforded any legal services and so, by offering even rudimentary representation, APP is able to effect significant change.

As a volunteer tutor, I taught LL.B. modules to prisoners and prison officers enrolled on the program in Uganda. I found the work to be both impactful and profoundly rewarding and I returned as a volunteer the following summer, this time splitting my time between Kampala and Nairobi. Throughout term time at Queen Mary, I assisted with APP’s secondment program – a skills exchange between British and East African prison services – which enabled me to learn about the British penal system, too. After I graduated, I took a job with APP as the Legal Officer in Luzira Upper Prison, which is Uganda’s highest security prison, and holds men awaiting trial for, or convicted of, capital offences (including those on death row). I helped oversee the legal clinic, where we had a team of 24 prisoner-paralegals and, between us, we delivered meaningful results.

For example, I soon realised that children as young as thirteen were being held at Luzira Upper Prison, an adult institution. Many children in Uganda don’t have birth certificates, or other identification which would prove their age, especially if they are poor, orphaned, or living on the streets. So when they are arrested, sometimes the authorities wrongfully detain them in adult facilities. I prioritised the cases of these juveniles and, in my time as Legal Officer, 15 of our juvenile clients were released via appeal or acquittal, and over 25 were transferred to remand homes for children. (It’s probably the best thing I’ve done with my life so far!)

During your time volunteering for Justice Defenders and in general, do you find it hard to separate your emotions from your work? Sometimes, yes, it can be hard for me to be emotionally distant from my cases. For example, with our juvenile clients in Luzira, they were just teenage boys, they used to come and study by me as I worked in the prison, and some of them half-jokingly called me ‘mama Charlotte’. It is incredibly hard to separate yourself from that at the end of the day. I know many people in this kind of work struggle with emotional distance. But sometimes a professional degree of closeness can benefit the lawyer-client relationship. I’ve met a number of people – some of whom were later exonerated – whose lawyers failed them, because they didn’t know their clients and therefore they didn’t know the case, because their clients couldn’t open up. But, in turn, you need to learn how to balance these relationships with your own well-being. Oscar Wilde wrote that “[t]he most terrible thing about [prison] is not that it breaks one’s heart – hearts are meant to be broken – but that it turns one’s heart to stone”. So, it’s important to find ways to disconnect, have fun, and be loved.

What motivated you to apply for a full-time position with Justice Defenders once you graduated? I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the basis of 24 hours of interviews that I conducted on death row and other high security prisons in Kenya. My research interrogated Justice Defenders’ model according to applicable standards of international law, and it proved to me just how effective their model is. I’ve been in over 30 prisons in four countries, and what is unique about Justice Defenders is that it is a radical community, made up of formerly incarcerated lawyers, currently incarcerated lawyers, and lawyers who have never been incarcerated. Equipping indigent prisoners and prison officers with legal education doesn’t just assist prisoners, it also means that when people are released they go back to their communities – which are plagued by injustice, on issues such as land ownership, and abusive employers – and they are armed with legal knowledge. A number of organisations provide legal assistance but they don’t provide legal education, which means that when they leave, so too does their legal knowledge. Also, I was motivated to return to Kampala, where I had good friends and which I had fallen in love with as a city.

How receptive were the prisoners to being educated in legal matters and justice? In prisons everywhere, people are desperate for legal knowledge. The prisoners and prison officers who study on the program are cognisant of the privilege they have been awarded, and they embark on their journey to becoming lawyers with enthusiasm and grit. In fact, the last time I checked, Justice Defenders’ LL.B. students on average performed better than other University of London students, which is astounding when you consider the barriers they face to studying while incarcerated in extreme conditions. This speaks to their dedication. Over the last five years, many of the prisoner-paralegals have become not only good friends, but also moral mentors for me, and they have certainly informed my perspective on the world. Many, if not most, of them have experienced grave injustices in their lives, but nonetheless they are able to find the strength to fight for a better world, one in which others do not suffer as they have.  One paralegal wrote to me, “my motivation [to help others] is driven [by] what I have experienced in this life… I saw my family’s rights infringed. [When I can provide legal services to others] that is the best feeling I’ve ever felt… when I feel that feeling, I feel like crying sometimes”. Their capacity to forgive is breath-taking, and I have so much to learn from them.

Also, their committed efforts to provide legal representation to the impoverished deliver incredible results – mostly for fellow prisoners but also for themselves. Just recently I had a conversation with a paralegal who represented himself in court and was released, after spending 22 years in prison (10 of which were on death row). It’s remarkable what people can do when given rudimentary resources.

Can you describe your career path up to date and your current role at the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide? After I graduated from Queen Mary, I did a short clerkship on the Supreme Court of Namibia, then I worked for African Prisons Project. Following that, I did my Master’s degree (LL.M.), during which I engaged in some immigration work, and some U.S.-based prisons work. After graduating from my LL.M. I started working as a Research Associate at the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. At African Prisons Project, I could sometimes work 14-hour days and it would still feel like my efforts were just a drop in the ocean, so in the short-term I wanted to try more of a policy role, to learn about the possibilities of, and barriers to, structural change. My current position involves doing empirical legal research and engaging in advocacy at an international level.

What are your future career ambitions? I initially entered criminal defence because of the injustices that I saw working in prisons in East Africa. But, in fact, I am most interested in international law – both in terms of the ways in which it intersects with domestic criminal law, but also outside of the criminal law context. I am currently applying for the Bar in the U.K. as I want to be a Barrister. In the future, I would like to dedicate some of my time to making legal education more accessible, as a mechanism for improving access to justice.

What does your current position at Cornell involve and what are some of your daily responsibilities? A lot of my job is conducting empirical legal research, as there is such a dearth of information on the death penalty globally. For example, at the moment we are working on a report about women who are sentenced to death for drug offences – which, shockingly, is the fastest-growing death-punishable offence globally. We also engage in advocacy on specific, precedent-setting cases, both internationally and in the United States. A smaller part of my job involves assisting in the representation of foreign nationals who are on death row in the United States. I work alongside a small team of dedicated lawyers who I am constantly learning from.

In our email exchanges you have mentioned the amazing mentors you had whilst at Queen Mary, Professor Phoebe Okowa being one such mentor. How have these mentors helped shape your interests and career to date? I had phenomenal mentors at Queen Mary, who shaped my intellectual growth. Prof. Phoebe Okowa introduced me to international law, which I now intend to pursue, and she also supervised my dissertation, in conjunction with Amber Marks. In my third year, I contracted double pneumonia, pleurisy and glandular fever and I had to repeat the year. Phoebe and Amber’s support through that gruelling process was important for me.

Since graduating, Phoebe’s mentorship has remained a key guiding force in my professional life. Phoebe informed me of the Frank Knox Fellowships, which I otherwise would not have known about, and I have consulted her on almost all significant life decisions. Likewise, I have benefitted immensely from the mentorship of Prof. Rosemary Hunter, who ingrained in me critical methods of approaching legal analysis, and whose work continues to inspire me. I have such admiration for each of these women who have, in different ways, stretched or broken societal moulds, who have done meaningful things with their lives so far, and who are willing to impart their knowledge. In my career thus far, I have found it vital to have mentors to whom I can relate, who celebrate my successes and guide me through the setbacks.

What is the Frank Knox Memorial Fellowship? How did you find your master’s degree at Harvard Law School? The Frank Knox and the Kennedy Scholarship are two fully-funded scholarships to Harvard (the Kennedy is also for MIT). I would advise Queen Mary students to apply. These fellowships are disproportionately awarded to Oxbridge students, so we need to diversify the applicant pool! The application process is competitive, but not onerously time-consuming. The interviews were intense: for the Kennedy there were nine interviewers, versus seven in the Frank Knox. But even if you are not successful, you learn a lot during the process. I was awarded the Frank Knox, which allowed me to complete my LL.M. last year.

To be honest, I was nervous about studying at Harvard Law School, as I was worried everyone might be really posh. But, actually, I found that many of my fellow students were dedicated human rights lawyers from around the world, and I made very close friends. It is vital to build a community when you do this kind of this work, because it can be isolating. When one of your clients dies, for example, you need people who can support you through that. Studying at Harvard gave me the opportunity to build that community globally. It was also such a privilege to study under some of the best minds. I was taught by people I had admired from afar, for example by Samantha Power, formerly Obama’s Ambassador to the U.N.

Finally, jumping back to Queen Mary, why did you choose Queen Mary for your undergraduate degree? As soon as I read about Queen Mary Law School, I wanted to go there. I was immediately drawn to its radical, socially-minded uses of the law. The School has a very impressive community-facing legal clinic and the British Institute of Human Rights is based there. Many of the academic staff have made significant real-world contributions, like Prof. Green and her work on the genocide in Myanmar, or Prof. Malleson and her efforts towards achieving greater equality in the British judiciary, or Prof. Alldridge and his work combatting financial crime.

I was also attracted to the exciting, different courses that were on offer, and the style of teaching. For example, being taught family law from a feminist perspective by Profs. Choudhry and Hunter was profound for me, because it allowed me to frame many of my life experiences according to a theoretical, legal model. I was hooked, and later went on to study more feminist legal theory at Harvard. Likewise, studying jurisprudence – which can be pretty dry! – with Prof. Del Mar was again innovative and different (for example, as well as the classics, we engaged with critical race theory and other frameworks which challenge dominant ideologies). I’ll forever be grateful that my formative legal education happened at Queen Mary.

Is there any advice you would give to current students or recent graduates considering their career options? For me, volunteering and working throughout my studies enabled me to try different areas of work and discover what I enjoyed and what I was passionate about. I would encourage others to do the same. I think that very few people have a ‘calling’ and so it’s important to engage in a process of trial and error. It can help you find something that you love, and that you’re good at, and that chips away at making the world a little fairer and more just.

What was so special about your time at Queen Mary? Queen Mary is such a diverse university – in terms of ideas, beliefs, sexuality, ethnicity etc. – and that is remarkably special. The friendships that I made at Queen Mary remain among my closest.

This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Charlotte or engage her in your work, please contact Nicole at n.brownfield@qmul.ac.uk.