I’m a housing solicitor for a busy London Law Centre. I have volunteered, trained with and qualified with my organisation, and financial difficulties have never been too far away from our door.
Legal aid cuts have left organisations such as mine struggling just to keep our doors open day-to-day. The future for my Law Centre and indeed our movement has never been in so much danger from government cuts.
I’m contracted to work a 37.5 hour week, but in practice most of us work through our lunch, stay late and either take work home or work at the weekends. Most days we are seeing new clients (about homelessness, disrepair, or unlawful evictions), complying with court directions, representing people on the county court duty scheme, and making applications to the Legal Aid Agency. Our offices are cramped, our furniture second-hand and interview space is always at a premium.
In my experience staff are overworked, anxious about the future but also utterly dedicated to their clients and our work. We fight our clients’ corner because we are their best and probably only chance to obtain access to justice and enforce their legal rights. The burden of holding your clients’ hopes in your hands is a heavy one and every day solicitors are faced with little frustrations such as creaking IT systems, faulty photocopiers, the Legal Aid Agency’s endless pedantry/bureaucracy and a lack of administrative support. As a legal aid lawyer the fate of your entire organisation often falls on your hands alone and with that knowledge comes added work pressure.
Law Centre salaries do not keep up with inflation and our pay does not really change year to year. Each year solicitors stay because they care about the work and their clients but in doing so they sometimes sacrifice their health and their dreams of long term financial security. I do not envy my other lawyer friends who earn far greater sums in the city, I love my work, but I’d be lying if I said I did not worry about what the future holds for myself and the Law Centres movement in general.
Access to justice and the rule of law are readily bandied about by political parties but if we care about these concepts then there needs to be the political will to provide proper financial support for our under-resourced legal aid system.