I worked as a paralegal for five years before training and qualifying as a solicitor. I worked in a busy team doing almost exclusively legal aid work, on health and social care cases, inquests and actions against the police. The hours were often long and much of the work was urgent, so we were usually working to very short deadlines.
The clients were people who came to us for help at some of the most difficult times of their life – when they were fighting to get the social care support they needed for their disabled children, when their local council was threatening to close a vital service or after the death of a loved one in prison or police custody. Because of this, the work could take a significant emotional strain. It was not easy to ‘switch off’ at the end of the day. It always felt like we had too much to do, but it was difficult to turn people away when they had been let down or treated unfairly by the state.
Despite the low salaries paid at many firms doing legal aid work, I found it very difficult to get a training contract to qualify as a legal aid lawyer. Cuts to legal aid – and the rates of remuneration not being increased, even for inflation, for over 25 years – have meant that firms find it more and more difficult to offer training contracts and to pay decent salaries to their staff. Firms have also become increasingly reliant on paralegals to do much of the work on legal aid cases under the supervision of qualified solicitors.
I know from friends’ experiences at other firms that this ‘supervision’ can often be very light-touch, meaning that important cases are effectively run by paralegals. This cannot lead to clients receiving the best possible service, but it represents the current reality at some legal aid firms as they struggle to survive the cuts. The impact of legal aid cuts on the public is huge: the number of people receiving legal aid funding for their cases each year has fallen by hundreds of thousands since LASPO.
I think I am paid a decent salary by my firm, but I still have to live month-to-month, renting a room in a shared flat in London. While friends from university are starting to buy properties, the prospect of saving enough money for a deposit feels like a pipe dream to me.
The cuts to legal aid and the hostile environment created for us and our clients by some politicians and parts of the media make life difficult for us as legal aid lawyers, but most importantly ordinary people often have no effective way of accessing justice as a result of the cuts. Despite all of the challenges, I love my job and would not want to do anything else. I wanted to be a legal aid lawyer to help people – to try to use the law to improve peoples’ lives when they need it most, particularly when faced with unfair treatment by public bodies. I hope I will be able to continue to do this work for decades to come.