We are all poorer for the cuts

I am a 30 year-old Trainee Solicitor working in housing law. My salary is £18,590 pa.

My clients are mostly social housing tenants facing eviction, or are already homeless and seeking accommodation from the Council, or have problems of disrepair in their homes.

I don’t have a typical day as such. I always start before 9am and try to finish at 5.30pm, but normally this ends up being 6-6.30pm. Whether I have a lunch break depends on whether I have urgent work to do, such as threaten a local authority with judicial review for not helping a client who is on the streets. Because I run my own caseload I like to take ownership over the work and I will do whatever is needed to get the job done for the clients. It’s a real cliché but I don’t do the work for the money – I do it for the same reason I went into law, to help people who are, for one reason or another, unable to enforce their rights.

I am fortunate enough to have family who have paid for my LPC, and a partner who earns more than me (though still not a lot compared to our peers). Without both of those I can’t see how I could have afforded to go into law.

The gap between the perception of legal aid lawyers’ wages and the reality is astounding. Even one of our clients assumed our solicitors earn six figures. I have worked in housing law since 2006 and had to take a pay cut of £10k from my previous role in a charity in order to train. £18,590 might not sound too bad, but when you live in the most expensive city in the world and your friends earn twice what you do, it does get to you – it’s all relative. My wage on qualification will not be much better.

The reality is that the cuts to legal aid have compoundnoun_237310_cc
ed the huge problems of social immobility where people from more disadvantaged backgrounds are shut out from pursuing a legal career, and for that we are all poorer.

 

There is no incentive to working in legal aid anymore

I am a thirty year old paralegal working in criminal legal aid. I earn £17,000.

My typical day at work involves running my own caseload. I have around 40 clients who are facing criminal proceedings, varying from theft to murder. I manage cases from start to finish. My job is to take the client’s account, take any defence witness statements, chase the Crown Prosecution Service for outstanding evidence, which then has to be reviewed, and I also arrange for expert reports to be undertaken, which can be an extremely lengthy process.noun_89997_cc

Some clients can suffer with mental health problems, can be addicted to alcohol or drugs, can be volatile or emotionally distressed. Sometimes I may be sworn or shouted at, however, it is vital that these clients are treated with dignity and respect. I often refer these clients on to local support services if necessary. It is extremely important to me that, although my job is to take the client’s instructions, they get the chance to tell me about their issues, although equally important to keep a sometimes difficult client on track. There can be a fine art to this.

I also attend Magistrates and Crown Court hearings, along with any conferences that a client may have with his or her barrister. I visits clients in prison, who now can be very distressed as the prison service is also suffering severe cut backs and prisoners are held in their cells for most of the day.

By the time I qualify, I will have spent 6 years studying towards my degree, and a further two years studying part time towards my Legal Practice Course. A training contract will take two years part time, but I hope to be able to have some time knocked off for experience in criminal law, and I also hope to be able to complete this at the same time as my LPC. This would all have cost me £20,000. The average salary of a newly qualified criminal solicitor in my local area is around £25,000. When I worked as a legal secretary on the outskirts of London (with no legal qualifications), I earned £32,000. Where is the incentive? The simple answer is – there isn’t one.

Due to the cut backs and uncertainty in legal aid, firms have become stagnant, there are no funds to take on extra members of staff, there have been no pay rises in over 5 years and no bonuses or incentives to work towards.

Most students will opt for the higher paying career route, not legal aid. The legal aid sector is sure to dwindle, and those who, like me, want to practice in the legal aid sector to help the vulnerable, will be few and far between. We must protect those who cannot afford to pay for legal services.

I would not want my solicitor to say they did not have time for my family

I’m a trainee solicitor specialising in the defence of fraud, white-collar crime and regulatory matters. It is somewhat a fancy title, but I feel the salary certainly does not reflect that (I earn £16,000). Rather despondently, I have to admit that I earned more as a receptionist during my University vacations than I do now, and that was without the qualifications, and the inevitable debts of obtaining a degree and the subsequent Legal Practice Course (LPC).

My day typically begins at 6:30am when I get up to get ready for work. I’m out of the house by 7:30am to make the hour and a half London commute to the office. At the office, I begin following up emails and messages I’ve received over night from clients or counsel. This job is most certainly not a nine to five.

It is then a matter of either hours of considering and analysing prosecution papers, court or prison visits or back-to-back conferences with whoever requires my attention that day. This will usually be counsel, experts, clients or perhaps more often than not their family members. Many people fail to acknowledge that it is not just my client who goes through the legal proceedings but also their friends and relatives. The legal aid agency does not pay for my time to meet with family members (unless they are a potential defence witness) so much of this I do pro bono (“for free”). Why do I do this? If the roles were ever to be reversed I would not want my solicitor to say they did not have time for my family or friends, so I do for them what I would want done for me.

In fact, a lot of what I do is pro bono; before funding is in place or once a case has been closed I still do what I can to help a client. Often, I am all they have to help them through the most trying and daunting time of their life and to turn them away because I do not get paid for it would be unjust.

If I am not in the office I may have to see my client in a prison or a Court hundreds miles from the office. This would take me out of the office all day and be costly in travel. Fortunately, my firm does reimburse me personally for my travel fees but this often leaves them out of pocket. This is because there is a limit on what can be claimed from the legal aid agency.

After a long day at the office, court, prison or wherever I may be, I am lucky if I am home before 8pm. Twice a week I also study my LPC course in the evenings, so on these nights it is more like 10pm. Once home, and when I say home, I mean my parents home. I eat dinner and prepare whatever I need for the following day and sleep.

I am thankful to my parents who tolerate me still living at home. I returned from University with the promise to myself, and them, that “I’ll only be at home for a year”. Three years later and I’m still living with my parents. I had every intention of moving out, but the reality of limited earnings, the high cost of London rent, my LPC and student loan repayments, I had no choice but to reconsider.

When I qualify I am hoping to be on a salary which allows me to live independently… I can only think this is what the myth means when they describe all lawyers as “fat cats lining their pockets”.

I am passionate about a career in public law, but the changes to legal aid have made it increasingly less viable.

icon_9359

Coins, by Timur Zima, Noun Project

The nature of public law means that work is often urgent, but it also varies. Today I came in just before 900 for a phone conference with counsel to discuss an emergency judicial review. Judicial Review is the means by which individuals can challenge decisions made by government bodies, and can often be the only way that someone can change or reverse something very unfair. This can include bringing judicial review claims against the police.

Shortly after my conference, I was frantically putting together papers for Court and by 0945 I was on my bike to the Adminstrative Court Office with papers and a cheque to pay for the application.  Back in the office at 1100 after filing the papers in court, I was busily preparing for the emergency permission hearing at 3pm, to decide whether the case should proceed to the next stage.  At the last minute things changed as the Defendant backed down, so we did not need to proceed with the hearing. There was still a lot of work that needed to be done including making sure that all parties had hard copies of the documents.

At 2pm my tummy was rumbling so I had  lunch at my desk.

I worry that we might not get paid for the work we did.  Although there was clearly merit to the claim – which is why the Defendant backed down – because of the stage that the case ended, we would have had to follow Regulations that meant that we have to request that the Legal Aid Agency exercise discretion to pay us for the work we did before the Defendant conceded. These Regulations were recently challenged in Court, again using the Judicial Review process; and thankfully we were paid for our work in this case.

This week I have also been responsible for dealing with written enquiries from potential clients.  This is an extra job which I have to fit in somewhere between all the casework, and inevitably means that I stay late.  Today I stayed in until 8pm to ensure that I responded to all the queries in good time.

Currently, I earn £20,000 a year. I love my job, but it would be nice to not have to worry about how much I spend when I buy my groceries.

I am passionate about a career in public law but the changes to legal aid have made it increasingly less viable as a career. I am applying for pupillages to become a barrister, and some of the positions I have applied to expect me to be able to survive in London on £12,000 for the year.  Although I told myself that I wouldn’t apply to these because I couldn’t afford it, such is my determination to practise public law that I gave in and decided that if I end up getting offered a pupillage with these chambers, I would just have to try to make it work.
I am concerned about all the cuts to legal aid because it is returning us to the dark ages when access to justice was determined by how wealthy you were.

The number of people calling for legal advice is increasing, but the number that qualify for legal aid is decreasing.

noun_33370_ccI’m a paralegal working in immigration and public law.  My days starts at 8am (in the office, computer on and emails pinging).

The phone rings. I recognise the number. I have a client that rings about 5 times a day. I know many colleagues who have similar clients. He’s very unwell. He’s detained under immigration powers and desperately wants to go home. He paid previous private  solicitors who took the money he borrowed from several friends and disappeared. He’s having difficulty trusting us.

I finish the call. I look at my to do list. Sometimes ‘leave office on time ‘ is on my to do list. It isn’t today because I’ve got too much to do. I need to write representations on an asylum claim to the Home Office. My client is gay and he can not return to his country of origin because homosexuality is a crime there, punishable by the death penalty. Also on my task list for the day is to request a bail address from the Home Office, so my client in detention can apply for bail. I also have to chase the Legal Aid Agency on funding applications so that we can actually be paid for the work that we do!

My day has not finished but the space available has! I leave the office at about 6.30pm. When I get home, I start working again for an hour or so.

I have not even started paying off my student loan because I don’t earn enough. I also have debt towards my Legal Practice Course fees. Living costs in London are high; it costs me over £200 per month just to travel to London. I earn £17,000, but for the number of hours that I do, it works out as less than minimum wage. I earnt more working in retail.

Everyday the  number of people calling and needing legal advice is increasing and yet the number of people qualifying  for legal aid is decreasing. However, the Home Office always has money for their legal advice.

I work 12-15 hours per day to battle for my clients’ liberty – for £20,000 pa

noun_33418_ccI am a 24 year old Pupil (trainee) barrister earning approximately £20,000 to practise criminal law.

I represent people from all walks of life who find themselves charged with a crime appearing in the Magistrates’ Court. A majority of the people I represent have suffered significant hardship; most have mental health problems and many have battled with drug addiction, homelessness, and other issues.

I am in court every day, and no two days are the same. Typically, I spend significant time with the client, advising them on trial prospects, or likely sentence, or chances of bail. Often the Crown Prosecution Service will not have done what they should to prepare the case as they are short on resources. Sometimes I am faced with cynical judges or magistrates and have to persuade them to take the right decision. I am frequently battling for my client’s liberty.

I always arrive at court by 9am. The length of time I spend at court depends on all manner of factors, but if I am done before lunch I will usually be sent to another court in the afternoon. When I get back to the office I need to do the follow up work from the hearing. At about 5.30pm I will be sent my papers for the following day. This may require many hours of preparation. On average I work 12-13 hours a day, though at least once a week that will be more like 15. I work at least one day of the weekend (courts are open on a Saturday!), and sometimes both Saturday and Sunday.

Payments for Magistrates’ Court work is extremely low: about £40-£60 per hearing or slightly more for a full trial. Out of this I pay for my own travel and income tax. Including all the time spent on preparation, this usually works out at far less than minimum wage. It is almost impossible to survive in London on these rates. I am lucky that at the moment I am paid a pupillage grant, but once this stops in a few months I will struggle financially. I have £20,000 of student debt to repay. At the moment I don’t earn enough to make repayments, but soon I will have to deduct loan repayments from the little I earn.

The work I do is ensuring the most vulnerable people get proper representation when charged with a crime. The cuts to legal aid mean that I will not be able to continue to do this job and afford to feed myself. As a result of the cuts, more and more people will go unrepresented and will be denied justice due to these cuts.

I am a 28 year old Paralegal who helps disabled adults and children access community care services

icon_31554I am a 28 year old Paralegal earning £17,000 pa practicing community care law.

My typical day starts at 9.30 and should end at 5.30. In practice, I normally work well into the evening and never take a lunch break. There is no pay for overtime I work. I put in the extra time because the workload is so great and because I care about the clients.

We are a very small and specialist team. Our community care clients are all children, vulnerable adults or carers. Most have significant physical and/or learning disabilities, and they are simply trying to access appropriate support from social services. My day is spent taking instructions from clients, which can be challenging as many of our clients have poor mobility and need to be visited at home or have learning difficulties. We liaise with the local authorities involved in an effort to find mutually amicable solutions to our clients’ problems. But often our clients are simply are not receiving the community care to which they are legally entitled. Our main route to challenging a failure by social services to provide care services is by judicial review. This involves a huge amount of work in the very early stages of the case, and we often have to compile considerable medical, occupational therapy, and psychological evidence. Regularly, after proceedings are issued, the matter is swiftly resolved by the local authority.

I also used to run education cases, but in 2013 my firm lost its education legal help franchise following the changes in legislation for legal aid (the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012). This has resulted in us having to turn away people who need help with education law as we cannot assist under the legal help scheme and they cannot afford to pay privately. Typical cases may involve university students who have suffered discrimination, or disabled children who are not receiving any or appropriate education.

I am not a fat cat lawyer. I have been working in human rights work since 2008 and currently earn £17,000 pa. I have 5 years of higher education under my belt, years of practical experience and specialist knowledge.  I don’t do the work I do for the money. I do the work because I care about my clients. But if my salary were to be cut, it would not be sustainable for me to keep doing this kind of work, no matter how much I love it.  I am 28 years old and have to live with my parents to make ends meet. I have £12,000 student debt.

I am desperately worried about the proposed changes to judicial review funding. The notion that a solicitor will only be paid if permission stage is reached will be devastating. Not getting to permission stage at court is very often a huge success: it means that the local authority has agreed to act without the case reaching a judge.

Volunteer designed by Stephen Borengasser from the Noun Project