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Insights into legal aid practice can inspire new generations to join the profession and fight for those in need

On 1 March 2017, Hodge Jones & Allen (HJA) hosted an evening for over 80 aspiring young lawyers in which they were given a look at the reality of life as a legal aid practitioner. Staff from different departments shared their experiences of life on the frontline seeking to provide access to justice to those in need.

Senior partner Patrick Allen spoke about the firm’s founding principles and the challenges it has faced (and continues to face) in undertaking legal aid work during its almost 40-year history. He emphasised how, alongside its private and conditional fee agreement work, the firm remains committed to this worthwhile, stimulating and crucial area.

Andrew Caplen, former Law Society president, spoke of his belief that the rule of law depends on real access to justice for those who need it. Providing a sweeping view of legal history that took in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs (31:8: ‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves’), Magna Carta and Nelson Mandela, he urged students not to lose their ‘high ideals’ as they think about and embark on a career in the law.

Sixth-formers, undergraduate and postgraduate students, and paralegals from across the country commented on the rarity of events such as this. With law schools seemingly providing minimal reference to legal aid, prospective lawyers were given a unique opportunity to learn about the need for and value of the work. Hearing a variety of stories from across the spectrum – about clients facing homelessness, children being taken into care, and actions that can be taken against the police and the prison service regarding deaths in custody – made for an enlightening evening. Comments from attendees were encouraging, both for the firm, as host of the event, and for all who are committed to access to justice:

“I know very little about legal aid but this event was very useful in highlighting the realities of the job and different practice areas it affects.”

“Not sure whether I wanted to go into law at all – now this is definitely what I want to do. Nice to know there is more to law than money.”

“I’ve attended many career events since I’ve been at university and this has been the first  that has left me genuinely inspired! Thank you.”

In opening the evening, we quoted the words of Dr EJ Cohn, who wrote: ‘[T]he state is responsible for the law. That law again is made for the protection of all citizens, poor and rich alike. It is therefore the duty of the state to make its machinery work alike, for the rich and the poor’ (‘Legal aid for the poor: a study in comparative law and legal reform’, (1943) 59 Law Quarterly Review 250). With that remaining as true today as it was nearly three-quarters of a century ago, HJA plans to make this an annual event and play its role in raising future generations of lawyers committed to access to justice. The event was just one of the ideas to come out of the firm’s 2015 Innovation in Law Report (Unjust Kingdom: UK perceptions of the legal and justice system),
in which HJA committed to establishing an education scheme to promote the justice system across schools and youth and community groups. We hope this event played a small part in the continuance of lawyers who are committed to fighting for those in need over the coming years.

The article was first published in the Legal Action magazine, April 2017.