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.

 

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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”.

Further cuts will mean experienced practitioners will not venture into legal aid

cropped-cropped-save-legal-aid-banner51.jpgI am a newly qualified solicitor practising in housing law.

A typical day is never how I typically think it would play out. In the perfect “typical day” I would come into work at 0930 and leave at 1730. Write some brilliant submissions for a clients case and have some lunch.

However a typical day, as it more often than not plays out, is, as soon as I walk into the office, the reception area is full of clients for our early morning walk in surgery for housing / benefits. Myself and 4 colleagues  go through each client advising them and booking appointments for some we can help under legal aid for more complex matters and wrap up about 11:30.

We then have to deal with, at least once a week now, an emergency case where we have to prepare for Judicial Review or last minute Possession hearing while we juggle our large case loads, meaning lunch is 10 minutes at about 1600 and we don’t leave till at least 1830.

Student loans, credit cards and other obligations, totalling in the thousands with their commitment to only reduce by a little every month makes it a difficult scrape at times, when working primarily in publicly funded areas of law.

Legal Aid cuts have already left their mark by removing advice for debt and benefits out of scope. While I (and my team) conduct pro-bono work offline and work online at further cuts will mean experienced practitioners will not venture into Legal Aid as we would be only be able to help a small percentage of people and have limited remuneration to keep us going.

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

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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.

If I lose my job, I can find another one. But where will my clients go?

I am a newly qualified solicitor working in actions against the police and asylum. I usually wake up at 6:00 a.m. and cycle to the gym for some pre work stress busting. The journey takes 45 minutes and is useful to think about my day, compose letters and emails in my head and think about my cases. If things are busy or there is non paid campaign work to do I will try and get to work at 7.30 / 8 but I try to make sure this is only once or twice a week at most. If I have made the gym I get to work around 9.00 a.m. I plan my weeks and days in advance so I don’t avoid the more terrifying huge tasks. The days vary so much. I can either be on the phone all day to clients and the opposition, researching cases, spending hours arguing with the Legal Aid Agency or drafting statements and submissions. There are shorter tasks and quick letters. I might see a client or have to go to court. There is usually some sort of crisis or emergency such as a client being detained or deported, an unexpected decision to appeal or challenge. As with most young legal aid lawyers there is the burden of law school fees (often paid if you get a job at a corporate firm) and then the years spent working for free or on little wage whilst doing work experience and paralegal jobs for 2 – 3 years. My trainee wage was decent for legal aid at that time and just enough to survive in London. Whilst my peers at Law School were earning £40k I was on £20k. I supplemented this and debt payments working as a private tutor which paid well, washing up and selling anything my family and friends were throwing away on ebay. After six years at my firm I earn what I consider a good wage, but about 1/3 of lawyers who don’t work in legal aid.  But, if you calculate the number of hours I work against my salary, it often works out to less than minimum wage. I do not expect it to increase in the next five years. I don’t have a pension, I don’t have health insurance or any other work related benefits.  We do not get anything like commissions or bonuses! My hours can be long and the work stressful.  I was prepared for this but it is frustrating to be told we earn too much when the reality is very different.

noun_89997_ccIf I lose my job I can find another one. I probably will not love it but it may be less stressful, better paid and so on. But what about my clients, where will they go? How can my clients most of whom have PTSD, depression, personality disorders and schizophrenia challenge the might of the state on their own? How can they hold the police or Home Office or Ministry of Justice to account, understand the law, challenge the government’s lawyers and understand when they are being lied to by the opposition, who are trying to call their bluff, scare them and make them give in? Democracy will be undermined by these cuts.

The cuts are bound to cause a surge in homelessness

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Created by Silly Lili from the Noun Project

I am a solicitor working in housing law. I have been practising for over 10 years. I earn £26,000 per year.

My role includes taking new client calls (I often now, have to say we can’t help) seeing clients in this or one of our other offices in nearby town/city. Often they haven’t managed to get all the proofs needed by the Legal Aid Agency when I see them, so I can’t open a file until they do.

I can often help with rent & other possession claims. I also deal with housing disrepair counterclaims and unlawful evictions/landlord harassment. Homelessness queries are another area, as is anti social behaviour. At best I can stop the action (repossession/unlawful eviction/ASB injunction) and claim compensation (eg for disrepair) or get a homeless person accommodated.

I do not have any outstanding debt for studies, but I have a mortgage. It is a nag at the back of my mind, as I have given in my notice, because I feel so much under unrealistic pressures at work. I can manage without a job for several months if I cannot find anything quickly

The people most affected by the legal aid cuts- our clients – are so vulnerable and so much under attack that I feel fearful for them. The cuts are bound to cause a  surge in homelessness.