On meeting an unsung legal hero

At my law college, we have to do something called a Practice-Related Activity. It’s compulsory, but can be anything broadly related to law. Some people play the FTSE game, some people attend Commercial Awareness workshops or take part in a mooting competition; there are countless options. I always knew that I wanted to do some pro bono work (pro bono publico, for those unaware, means “for the public good” and is a term for legal work undertaken free of charge), and so I looked through the pro bono catalogue as soon as I could. Of the options, the one which grabbed me most was the option of working in the Central London County Court, at housing repossession hearings. I signed up at the earliest opportunity.

Central London County Court

Last Friday I received an email from the organiser saying that a sign-up sheet was available. When I arrived on Tuesday morning, there was only one slot still available this side of Christmas – Wednesday afternoon. I had no real idea of what it entailed. I’d read the blurb online to convince me to sign up in the first place, but knew nothing of the practicalities. I was sent an email explaining the process to me, and told to report to the court for 1:30 for a 2 o’clock start to the afternoon list.

The housing repossession cases are allocated about 5-10 minutes each of the court’s time, and there are typically 10 timetabled in an hour. In most cases both sides come to the court with representation; the Claimant certainly has representation already. In the event that an individual comes to court without a lawyer, the Duty Advocate is available to act on their behalf. The lawyer I observed today works in a high-street firm who have a contract with the government to provide representation for those who do not have it. I do not know for certain but I believe this is from the soon-to-be-reduced Legal Aid budget.

Typically, in each 2-hour session, 3 or 4 people will require the use of the Duty Advocate/Duty Solicitor.

This afternoon, I saw 3 cases, each of which were different in their detail but each of the clients was being threatened with the same thing: eviction. I won’t go into the cases here – that’s not fair on those involved – but the first and third cases ended in a resolution which enabled the defendant to continue their tenancy, and the second case ended in the defendant voluntarily moving out on account of the landlord’s failure to resolve some unsanitary living conditions.

In each of the cases, I was present when the Duty Advocate met the client. I saw each meeting from start to finish. I watched as he asked the right questions to gain exactly the information he needed to go to the claimants and negotiate outside the courtroom. Cases 1 and 3 didn’t even go before the judge – the Duty Advocate had negotiated a resolution. He gave advice to his clients about their next steps. He made sure the settlements were acceptable to both sides and realistic for his struggling client. All this on the strength of a few questions and a great deal of experience and skill. These clients meant as much to him as the corporate clients I have seen dealt with by large City firms and on whose behalf the same firm has acted for years.

I learned a great deal today: I learned how to ask the right questions; I learned how to care for a client’s welfare, yet not lose sight of the right thing; I learned about the civil system in action; I learned how to identify a solution. Most importantly, though, I learned about the people who make the system work, the people who help those who can afford no other help.

Legal Aid, whether it funded this particular Duty Advocate or not, is absolutely vital. I saw frightened people in that interview room today, scared of being cast out onto the street. They could not argue for themselves in the court. They could not negotiate with their landlords. They needed access to someone who could help them, and the government have provided it.

Today I saw justice in action. Not so much the courtroom, but the access to a lawyer. The outcomes being different wouldn’t have made the situation any less just – the Duty Advocate’s mere presence was a triumph in and of itself.

I had a Twitter discussion the other day with @colmmu and @LegalBizzle about how career politicians might lack awareness of the outside world, and that a previous career and the experience that brings makes for better politicians (and lawyers for that matter, asserted Mr Bizzle). Welfare policy was the area raised in this debate. Having seen what I saw today, I feel sure that a politician who sits in the same room I was in (a la the Channel 4 TV show “Undercover Boss”), and sees for themselves the amazing work that these publicly-funded lawyers do, could not possibly entertain slashing the Legal Aid budget as drastically as has been suggested. Ken Clarke, the justice secretary, has said that in cases “where people’s life or liberty is at stake, or where there is risk of serious physical harm or the immediate loss of their home”, legal aid will still be made available. But everyone deserves access to the law. It is not the preserve of the rich. One of the people we saw today earned, before they started an NVQ course, about £50 per week. Their new qualification will raise their minimum weekly salary to £91. That’s less than £5000 per year. Why should people such as this individual be denied access to the law in any circumstance, whether their home or liberty is at stake or not. This is not to suggest that the frivolous lawsuits such as ridiculous libel cases should be catered for by the state, but in instances where there has genuinely been some harm suffered by those who cannot afford legal representation, it should be made available to them. I’m sure that a certain Mr Paul Chambers could think of at least one frivolous case brought using public funds which could have been used to greater effect elsewhere. I have no idea how much the so-called “Twitter Joke Trial” has so far cost the taxpayer. I have no doubt, though, that it would pay for many hours and many cases of legal aid representation.

I have always had fairly stereotypical heroes: my dad, my grandfather, a few sports stars, a couple of politicians and business leaders. Recently I have found others, many people whom I now admire and seek to emulate. Today I added yet more heroes. Not just the one Duty Advocate I worked with, although his is the face I will forever associate with this group of heroes. But my new heroes are the lawyers who work to defend those who cannot defend themselves, who give access to law and justice to those who could not otherwise access it. A cut to the legal aid budget reduces the people these heroes can help, and reduces the number of heroes in our society.

Please, Mr Clarke. Protect the heroes who protect us.

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