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Spotlight: the legal aid lawyer

Posted on 3rd May 2017

Having trained for two years at Hodge Jones & Allen, I stayed on upon qualifying in 2013, fully committed to a career as a legal aid lawyer. That year, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into force, and with it, planned cuts to the legal aid budget of £350m. This followed legal aid’s new fixed-fee regime in 2006, and the 2011 cut in rates of 10 per cent across all legal work.

So 2013 was not great timing if, like my colleagues, you’re absolutely committed to upholding the rule of law and ensuring everyone in society has access to justice. But I think that’s the point; one doesn’t go into legal aid work for the money, nor the glory. You do it because you have an unwavering commitment to the rule of law and access to justice.

Your law school colleagues will earn three or four times more than you; but then, I’m not usually still in the office at 9pm like some of my peers, and I get the most tremendous amounts of satisfaction from my work for making a tangible difference to people’s lives. Just recently I represented a client who’d been trafficked from Nigeria to work as a house-slave in London; she escaped and was seeking housing support from the local council. I secured housing rights for her and she wrote to me that I was her ‘hero and warrior’. Sitting at my desk most of the day I am not sure I qualify for warrior status, but how many corporate lawyers get a feeling like that from their latest transaction?

Making a difference

I specialise in housing law, advising on homelessness reviews and appeals, judicial reviews, possession proceedings and disrepair claims. My work can be the difference between someone having a roof over their head or not. My case load is still around half legal aid, with the rest coming via a Conditional Fee Agreement (CFA) or privately.

Legal aid will always exist. It’s a crucial part of the welfare state and it will always need a flow of talented and committed lawyers to enable it to work at its best. It is, after all, a vocation. But it won’t be easy.

It might sound obvious but your choice of firm is really important. Many high street practices that have only ever carried out legal work are closing or struggling to find profitable routes to market.

I am fortunate in that the founding ethos of the firm I work in – using the law to help improve people’s lives – is as strong today as it was when it was founded almost 40 years ago. The firm’s attitude has always been to look ahead, predict and pre-empt the changes and adapt accordingly to enable it to meet its founding principle. It’s this approach that has enabled it to be at the forefront of some of the UK’s most renowned legal cases. While the firm undertakes fewer legally aided cases now than five years ago, it is still deeply committed to the work, successfully rebalancing its caseload with a mixture of work funded by CFAs and private clients, as well as legal aid.

As a trainee, I could learn from impressive colleagues, such as Jocelyn Cockburn, one of the UK’s leading human rights lawyers. I was present when she won her landmark Supreme Court case, which ruled that British Troops remain within the UK’s jurisdiction when deployed on active service abroad, and so are protected by the Human Rights Act. Decisions like this, won through legal aid, have the ability to impact thousands.

Overcoming frustrations

One of the blessings of the Legal Aid system is that it can often give you the scope to pursue interesting and novel points of law in a way you couldn’t under a CFA or through private funding, because of the risk involved. However, there are other frustrations beyond the pay. The limited scope for legal aid eligibility can mean that your only choice, assuming the client can’t be put on a CFA, is to act pro bono or send them to a law centre. The Legal Aid Agency’s Client and Cost Management System has not delivered on the multi-million-pound investment it received and remains fraught with problems, not least the amount of administration still required and massive processing delays.

Despite all that, it’s still a hugely rewarding career choice and one I would recommend. If you’re unsure, then immerse yourself in the world of a legal aid lawyer to make sure you’re fully aware of the challenges. There are plenty of voluntary opportunities to see legal aid work in action, not least at law centres.

When I was a student, I was so inspired by reading about the work of civil liberties lawyer Ruth Bundey in Michael Mansfield’s Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer that I wrote to her firm and was rewarded with a placement. It’s important to get your framework and principles firmed up early on so you know that this is the right area of law for you. Perseverance is also key. Opportunities will be few and far between but you wouldn’t be considering a career in legal aid if you can’t take a few knock backs.

Finally, keep in mind why you’re committed to access to justice. Before I started my training contract in 2011, I visited Lawyers of Hope Rwanda, with the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship (LCF) and I was particularly struck by their vision, taken from the book of Proverbs:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,

for the rights of all who are destitute.

Speak up and judge fairly;

defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Those words are by my desk at work – and they offer great perspective in the midst of the ups and downs of the day job as a housing solicitor.

The article was first published in the Thomson Reuters magazine, April 2017.

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