An interview with human rights solicitor Siobhán Conlon
About: Siobhán is a human rights lawyer specialising in immigration, asylum and criminal defence law. Siobhán has a Master’s degree in International Criminal Law and gained experience at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague. Siobhán qualified as a New York Attorney in 2005 and is a member of the Law Society of Ireland. She formerly worked in a top tier corporate law firm before specialising in representation of the most vulnerable in our society.
Siobhán recently retired from the board of directors of SPIRASI, Irelands national centre for survivors of torture.
1. How important is activism and what does it mean to you?
Without activism there is no change.
I continue to be inspired by my clients who have the courage to be activists within despotic regimes knowing their activism will result in persecution.
2. Can we use the law effectively as a tool for activism?
As lawyers we resort to the Courts as a means to implement change and vindicate our clients rights. It is an important tool but most powerful when coupled with grassroots activism and the coming together of communities in support of human rights.
The last 6 months has seen a particular low point for asylum seekers in Ireland. The state announced at the beginning of the year it was unable to provide accommodation for asylum seekers. At the same time groups took to streets seeking the removal of refugees from their community.
As lawyers we instituted High Court proceedings to compel the state to uphold its obligations in relation to the provision of material reception conditions or accommodation. But without communities coming out in support of refugees being housed in their community real impactful change cannot occur. 3. Tell us about a career milestone / case that will stay with you forever.
In 2017 I had the pleasure of representing Kathleen, a 96 year old Irish lady who lived in an Upper East Side rent controlled apartment in Manhattan. Kathleen was a single lady who spent the majority of her adult life working as a waitress in Manhattan. She saved her salary and invested wisely in stocks. A pair of Irish second cousins got in contact with her late in life and she agreed to give them a loan of $300,000. Kathleen instructed us when she was unable to get repayment of the loan in order to pay for her care. Kathleen gave evidence in the High Court from her flat in Manhattan by way of video link. Despite being represented by the current Attorney General and a former Lord Mayor of Dublin, she stole the show.
4. Does your current practice/organisation specialise in campaigning / representing clients in a specific area, and if so, how did you get involved in this area?
We specialise in human rights law which for us in practice means we represent disadvantaged migrants, asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups.
5. What is the most important change to the law that you feel needs to be addressed now?
The constitutional definition of family will likely be examined in the near future. I hope an amendment will mean a broader interpretation of related definitions in Irish law.
The International Protection Act 2015 allows refugees to seek to be reunited with their family, meaning a spouse and/or child. Refugees from countries where Sharia law prevails cannot obtain reunification with adopted children as there is no allowance for full adoption under Sharia law. As a result children are left behind and separated from the only family they have known.
6. What advice do you have for anyone interested in getting involved in your line of work?
Volunteer with an NGO. It is a great way to figure out if working in the area of human rights is for you.