Office hours are 9.30am-5.30pm but I’m generally in the office from 8.30 through to 7 on a normal day – or much later if a new urgent case has come in or a client needs emergency help. This can happen for instance, where a new homeless client with children has been turned away from a local authority homeless department for some spurious reason and is facing street homelessness that night. Luckily once I’ve sent threatened legal action the local authority will usually back down and agree to provide emergency housing to the family, but I often wonder what happens to those families who aren’t lucky enough to find a legal aid solicitor who can do this work them on the same day. If the authority doesn’t see sense, or is just very bad at responding to correspondence (it happens) then with the help of a barrister we’ll make an application to the out-of-hours judge at the High Court. This can involve staying in the office until after 10pm sometimes to make sure that the council provides emergency housing after the injunction has been made.
Generally my day involves meeting with clients, writing to the other side to progress a case, instructing barristers and sending them papers to represent clients at hearings, drafting statements to support client cases and so on. The type of work is to do with housing conditions, preventing people from being evicted, enforcing their social welfare rights and trying to make sure clients have a safe, suitable home to live in. Aside from client work I also have to deal with lots of Legal Aid Agency correspondence usually asking for more information from clients who although are on Income Support or Jobseeker’s Allowance are now expected to explain credits as little as £10 going in and out of their bank account.
There is then all the billing work to do to make sure that I actually get paid for the casework. This can involve appealing against Legal Aid Agency decisions to reduce or not pay me at all for a case; or negotiating with the other side who had been ordered to pay my client’s legal costs. This is just as important as the client work of course, because unless I do this the firm will go out of business and there will be nobody around to provide that legal advice and assistance to clients.
I am quite lucky in that I was part of the last year that didn’t have to pay any tuition fees for university, so I don’t have a massive amount of debt to pay off. I can definitely survive on my salary even though I live in the most expensive city in the world! It would be nice to do a bit more than just “survive” particularly when I compare myself to what other lawyers with my experience are earning…
On-going cuts to legal aid will ultimately mean that there will be fewer and less well-qualified lawyers around to provide the crucial advice and assistance to really vulnerable people. This will lead to knock-on costs for society, including on the health service and the courts, but it is a warning which the general public (and certainly the politicians) do not seem ready to listen to.