Barrister Tara O'Leary

In the latest in our series, profiling Irish and Northern Irish lawyers and jurists who have worked abroad, or are working abroad, we spoke with Barrister Tara O’Leary, from County Kerry, who was called to the bar in England and Wales. She now practices in chambers in London, specialising in public law. Before that, Tara spent five years working on human rights and international criminal law in Ireland, the UK, Uganda and the Balkans.

Barrister Tara O'Leary

IRLI? Tell us about who you are and what you do

SOL: I began pupillage (‘devilling’) at Cornerstone Barristers in 2014, and was offered tenancy the following year. Since then, my work has expanded into economic and social rights. Amongst other issues, I’ve worked extensively with local government on the allocation and management of social housing, implementation of homelessness services, improvement of housing standards in the private rented sector, and compliance with Equality Act duties.

What is your background/training

I completed an LLB in Law and European Studies at the University of Limerick in 2008. I’d had no lawyers in my family nor any real legal experience; I was interested in public affairs, government and legislation but frankly, unsure whether legal practice would be for me. So I looked for a degree offering a range of career options, which encouraged interests within and beyond the law. All students at UL spend six months on a ‘cooperative education’ placement and I worked in The Courts Service Of Ireland in Dublin, watching barristers in court and beginning to feel the stirrings of ambition. Afterwards, I spent a semester on exchange to law school at the University of Victoria in British Colombia, Canada, which really blew open my horizons. I took my first classes on human rights topics and met lawyers committed to public interest work. I realised I was keen to pursue more of the same, and went on to an LLM in public international law at the London School of Economics (LSE).

After throwing myself into volunteering and internships at LSE, I was very lucky to spend a (funded) year as Frank Jennings Fellow with Front Line Defenders in Dublin. That led on to other positions, working in Kampala with the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, and then with the The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in the Balkans. Over time, I began to feel that my career options would be improved by qualifying to practise law. Ultimately, I ended up returning to London so I could do the bar course (‘the BPTC’), but as I couldn’t afford to leave work, I studied part-time for two years while holding down busy full time jobs. Initially, I worked as a legal advisor on a campaign for Amnesty International on International Justice, then at REDRESS I led a project on improving access to justice for victims of international crimes. Moving to private practice was a big change and I had all the usual doubts and fears about pupillage, but I haven’t looked back since joining chambers.

Barrister Tara O'Leary

Tara, with the former Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, in Kampala in 2010

Why did you become interested in legal work?

Human rights, international law and the issues now arising within my domestic public law practice all sit at an intersection between law, history and politics. I find them endlessly interesting, both practically and intellectually.

In addition, legal practice is essentially about problem-solving. Within litigation and as a barrister, either you are supporting someone to use the law to find a remedy for their problems, or you are helping them to defend themselves from the problem of legal proceedings. Some of my public law work also has a wider dimension, insofar as all sides want to clarify statutory powers or procedures, so they can be applied correctly in the future. You can’t win every case, but it is incredibly satisfying to feel that you converted a deadlocked dispute or a grey area of law into a solid outcome. 

You have lived in Bosnia - what did you do there?

I saw a position at The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Mission to Bosnia & Herzegovina advertised on a blog, which seems very quaint looking back now. Within three weeks, I found myself in Sarajevo, grappling with a different legal system and taking language classes at night. I also discovered a wonderful community of lawyers, professionals and friends, including several talented Irish lawyers who have since gone from strength to strength in their careers around the world. I was part of the OSCE’s efforts to strengthen the local criminal justice system, which was investigating and prosecuting conflict-era atrocities in parallel to the proceedings at The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. We carried out court monitoring of local war crimes trials and analysed progress on the national strategy for war crimes processing. I also worked on gender-related issues, including prosecution of sexual violence, and authored a report on local courts’ handling of domestic violence cases. I then moved to the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, where I spent 18 months in Pristina, advising on varied human rights issues, including ethnic discrimination, post-conflict cultural and property disputes, and elections and voting in minority communities.

What do you hope to achieve from the work you are doing?

I always hoped that the international community’s work – of which I was part – would help to strengthen local legal systems, support local stakeholders to effectively enforce human rights standards, and empower victims of human rights abuses to safely access remedies and reparations. The realities of private practice are less altruistic, and you need to remain focused on the best interests of your client in any given case. But I do hope that I can continue to have a varied and exciting career, combining my work on human rights in the domestic legal sphere with international experiences.

Can you tell us some of your professional experiences that have left quite a mark on you personally?

Some names, faces and stories will never leave me. In Bosnia and Kosovo you didn’t have to go out and look for victims of conflict – local colleagues in the office had their own experiences, which were sobering. For about two years I did a lot of work arising from the Grenfell Tower fire, and some of that was difficult. More broadly, every barrister also nurses a few lingering bruises from bad days in court. But I have two favourite success stories.

I was involved in a case concerning the UK’s first ‘buffer zone’ outside an abortion clinic. A local council (Ealing in West London) implemented a PSPO, a sort of by-law which prohibited various protest activities including pro-life prayer vigils and ‘pavement counselling’ which were causing significant distress to persons accessing services at the clinic. Everyone understood this was a test case; leading counsel and I were able to provide advice and input from an early stage, then successfully defended a legal challenge brought by two pro-life activists. I always felt the case had the potential to establish wider-reaching precedent, and I’m incredibly proud that we persuaded the Court of Appeal – for the first time – to recognise and vindicate women’s rights to privacy, whilst accessing reproductive healthcare. Ealing subsequently extended the lifespan of its PSPO, and other councils may adopt similar measures at clinics in their districts. Clearly, the case also offers precedent for similar pro-life protests taking place in Ireland.

I also acted pro-bono for a woman in proceedings under the Freedom of Information Act, who was seeking disclosure from The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) of a report it had drafted following a review into the circumstances of her father’s death in Belfast in the early 1970s. The report was prepared by the PSNI’s Historical Enquiries Team, which was set up to review thousands of killings during the Troubles, but then suspended amidst political controversy in 2014. The PSNI refused to release any reports which were still officially in draft form, even though my client had been told her report was completed. Shortly after we filed written submissions within Tribunal proceedings, the PSNI reversed its position and we had the draft report in our inboxes. It revealed a wholly different version of events to the story which had prevailed about her father’s death for the previous 45 years, and exonerated him of any blame. That was an emotional afternoon.

Barrister Tara O'Leary

Where are you working now, and why?

I’m currently in New York City on a short sabbatical from chambers as a Visiting Scholar at Fordham University School of Law. This is thanks to a Pegasus Scholarship, awarded by Inner Temple (one of the Inns of Court in London) so that junior barristers can spend time in another common law jurisdiction for the purposes of professional development and networking. I’m working on a project looking at best practice in storing and archiving evidence of serious human rights abuses, to preserve its integrity and admissibility in legal proceedings. It’s been a timely reminder of the freedom we enjoy at the bar to combine ‘ordinary’ practice with other interests.

Why did you decide to work abroad?

I wanted to travel, to live and work abroad, and to get to know different cultures in a way that’s not possible as a tourist. I also wanted to get experience in my chosen legal field in a range of different settings and contexts, working with the people affected and listening to what they had to say. I decided to qualify in London because I loved the city, plus the bar in the UK offers some practical advantages to Ireland, including funded pupillages and the security of working with colleagues in chambers. I also felt it would be easier to develop a specialised public law practice in London. I can’t say whether that assumption was right, but I do know that I was able to immediately access the kind of legal work I wanted to do from day one in Cornerstone. 

Your advice to young people entering the legal profession?

Be open minded to new areas of law and different opportunities – they may surprise you. I knew nothing about some of my current areas of practice when joining chambers, but found myself gripped by the practical implications of areas like housing and homelessness law.

For those focused specifically on the bar, I would say be pragmatic and take your time. This isn’t an easy career path for anyone who needs immediate stable employment. Finding pupillage in the UK is very competitive. In public law chambers, its particularly common to find pupils who are a bit older and have a few years’ previous legal experience: I was turning 30 when offered tenancy. Students shouldn’t be discouraged, but instead plan ahead carefully to ensure they’re in the best possible position to enter the profession. Chambers understand that not everyone can do unpaid internships in glamorous locations. It’s possible to study part-time (as I did), find funded graduate positions, work as judicial assistants, paralegal in specialised solicitors’ firms, and volunteer your legal expertise in the community. The Inns of Court also provide a wealth of scholarships for study and accommodation.

I want to shout from the rooftops that the antiquated stereotypes of the bar are no longer true. I work with a diverse group of fellow barristers from all sorts of backgrounds, and the majority of my instructing solicitors are women. I’ve had powerhouse female role models throughout my career, such as leading counsel who are now becoming judges and taking silk, two UN Special Rapporteurs, and directors of NGOs.

I’d pass on the words of a friend, to whom I confided long ago that I dreamed of becoming a barrister but worried that I would never make it. “Well,” she said, “somebody has to.”