Why you should care
Led by Faye Jarvis, a group of attorneys at a London law firm is working pro bono on an overdue reckoning.
Faye Jarvis recounts an affecting interview with a Catholic woman, now in her late 60s, who had become pregnant at 19. The stigma of having a baby out of wedlock — to use the language of the time — in Ireland on the cusp of the 1970s was so strong that her family dispatched her to a mother-and-baby home.
Once inside, the 19-year-old was assigned a fictitious name, forbidden visitors and given little medical attention. The woman recalled how babies were left for long periods without being fed, comforted or changed.
“I’ve never understood how you could get yourself comfortable with being mean to the babies,” says Jarvis, of the nuns who ran the home.
A few months after the birth (the details are loose because the interviewee does not want her identity disclosed), a nun took the baby from her arms. “She followed the nun down the corridor, but it was all too late,” says Jarvis. “The doors closed and that was it. She never saw him again.”
Jarvis is not a journalist or a historian, but a pensions lawyer and partner at Hogan Lovells, a London law firm. Usually, her working day involves dealing with trustees of schemes and helping companies sort out pension-related problems. Now Jarvis is also overseeing lawyers working on an ambitious pro bono project — 69 have contributed 3,600 hours of work — taking witness statements and preparing them for submission to the Irish Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. “It can be quite traumatic,” she reflects, in a light-filled corporate meeting room.
When you’re in a big corporate law firm, you don’t get [the] sense that you’ve really made a difference to an individual.
London lawyer Faye Jarvis
The work, which started in 2015, is for the Clann Project, a collaboration between two campaigns: Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR), which supports women who worked for no pay in laundries operated by nuns, known as the Magdalene laundries; and the Adoption Rights Alliance (ARA), which campaigns on behalf of those affected by Ireland’s secretive forced-adoption system of the 20th century.
The goal is to build a dossier of the treatment of unmarried pregnant women sent to the homes, and of children taken for adoption. The report will feed into evidence to be presented to the commission, the Irish government and human rights organizations.
To date, the firm has collected 75 finalized statements. This is a small proportion of the estimated 70,000 mothers and children who passed through 14 homes. Many witnesses fell away, finding the process too traumatic.
The homes came to worldwide attention through the film Philomena in 2013, which told the real-life story of Philomena Lee, a woman who gave birth to a son in 1952. He was taken away when he was 3, adopted in the U.S. and died in 1995. Lee told Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who helped her research her son’s life, “If only, if only … I’m sure there are lots of women to this very day — they’re the same as me; they haven’t said anything.”
Pro bono legal work is a feature of modern law firms, delivering free legal advice and representation to individuals, charities and community groups for the benefit of society.
From the lawyers’ point of view, projects equip them with new skills and expertise, and offer a sense of purpose. Pro bono work can also be a useful way for law firms to stand out in the recruitment market — many corporate lawyers welcome the chance to work on cases with a social benefit.
Hogan Lovells, where Jarvis has worked for almost 11 years, asks each employee, including personal assistants, to undertake 25 hours of such work every year. Jarvis says she probably puts in three times that amount of time.
Claire McGettrick, co-founder of JFMR and ARA, says: “We knew we wouldn’t have the time and resources to do this on our own.”
The law firm provides manpower, but also rigor. Working with the charities, the firm created a set of questions to capture the same kind of information from each witness, about the conditions under which they were made to live and work. “If you just left individuals to write their own story, it would be very difficult for some to do. Some of it would be quite long and rambling, and the key points would possibly be lost,” says Jarvis.
Susan Lohan, a co-founder of ARA, says: “I often find that when I talk to these women, the first thing they want to talk about is that ‘they took my child, they took my child.’
“It’s important, but you also want to glean other evidence: Were you fed properly? Were you asked to work long hours without pay? Did you get medical advice?”
The lawyers were fresh to the stories, which helped, says Lohan. “They weren’t inured to the repetition. We’ve become desensitized. To see the shock and indignation was actually reassuring.”
Hogan Lovells is an English law firm, which was also an asset. “You can say that Irish people are somewhat exhausted by church-state scandals,” says Lohan.
Some witnesses dropped out because they found it too difficult emotionally. “We didn’t want to force people,” says Jarvis. “It was their story, and they got in touch with us voluntarily, and so while we might follow up to say, ‘Can we help? Is there anything else?’ we haven’t pushed it.”
The statements were largely collected over the phone, so that witnesses could stay in their homes. Rather than email, documents were sent by post. This was a change of pace for corporate lawyers used to dealing with clients available all the time, and at top speed.
Jarvis reflects that some of the junior lawyers were better at talking to people, because they had not been through the “corporate sausage machine for long enough and so aren’t in that corporate mindset.”
Past pro bono projects at the firm have included obtaining injunctions for victims of domestic violence. “It is challenging, because as lawyers we like to be in control and can be perfectionists, and to go into another area and not be an absolute expert in it because that’s not what you do for your day job can be quite challenging and a bit nerve-racking.”
But such cases are rewarding, she says. “When you’re in a big corporate law firm, you don’t get [the] sense that you’ve really made a difference to an individual.”
It is also a reminder that legal action can be daunting.
For some lawyers, pro bono projects almost become a parallel practice as they develop new skills along the way. The risk can be that lawyers lose interest in their day jobs and move to other areas of law, such as charity or family practice.
Yet for the witnesses, who have largely faced contempt or disinterest, says Lohan, having a legal firm show interest has been gratifying.
Women tell her that recounting the past is hard, but at least they have a narrative. “It’s in black and white. If [they] ever need someone to understand [their] anger, [they] can just say: ‘Read my statement.’”
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