There is no such thing as an average boring day in the exciting world of criminal law, but you can usually find me in my local Magistrates Court during the working week.
I am often seen fighting fires as the duty solicitor allocated to a particular courtroom, where I will be constantly allocated case after case until I reach capacity, at which point I can send cases over to our floating solicitor who acts as a back up. For the sake of my firm, because I am a hard worker and, quite simply, because I think I’m best placed to deal with the cases, I am known to be incredibly hesitant to pass cases to the floating solicitor. This means that I will often be working incredibly hard all day dealing with one fresh case after another. Each case will usually always be for a very vulnerable defendant who is being detained in the cells and tends to have a complex and challenging background (including mental health difficulties, financial problems, etc). This usually pays my firm a measly £250 for the day.
On one occasion, I was sexually assaulted by a mentally ill client that I dealt with in the cells as the duty solicitor even though I was in the presence of 2 members of security staff. On that day, my firm reluctantly agreed to send someone over to help me to the financial detriment of the firm. I felt guilty because I knew how little we earned off the duty with one lawyer there, never mind sending another one over to assist me. I also had to speak to my boss who surprisingly queried why I couldn’t continue to act for the client who had sexually assaulted me… I see this as a fairly obvious reflection on the financial pressures that firms are under. How much did we earn that day? Well we probably made a loss.
When I am not the duty solicitor at Court, I am usually dealing with my fairly significant and reliable own client base. This consists of mentally ill women, alcoholics, 11 year olds, homeless people… just to name a few of my current cases for own clients this week. They ask for me whenever they are arrested and I will deal with them wherever they need me, whether at Court or in the police station. I have a work mobile which receives texts and calls at all hours from clients and their families. It is often said by criminal solicitors that we are also social workers for our clients. In this regard, I am always on call as whenever my clients are arrested I will invariably be contacted directly by the police, the Courts or my firm itself. There is no bonus scheme or direct financial incentive to me for being a good solicitor who attracts and retains own clients as I am merely employed on a salaried basis.
On one occasion, I had to throw myself out of the room at Court as my long-standing drunk own client was about to launch himself across the room towards me. How much did I make for representing him that day? Not much – it was a fixed fee in the Magistrates Court so it was only worth about £250, but I had to give the client away to someone else that day as I couldn’t represent him after that. I lost that client. I have found that being assaulted by vulnerable and difficult defendants with complex mental health difficulties is an occupational hazard in this job… a hard and demanding job that doesn’t pay any of us particularly well.
I’m most often at Court during the average 9-5 working week, but when I am not, where can you find me? I am often at Court on Saturdays as well where I probably earn an average of £50 as overtime for half a days’ work. I am frequently on call at the police station for 24 hour periods over my precious weekend and evenings too. If I don’t get called out, I get paid absolutely nothing – nada. If I get called out at any time in the night or during the day at the weekend, I get paid about £70 for my sins.
Being a legal aid lawyer is not for the fainthearted.
I keep fighting the good fight though. I am a supervising solicitor now and I am (hopefully) due to become a Higher Rights advocate in the crazy world of the Crown Court.
I am depressingly still in significant student debt. When I was employed as a legal aid paralegal, I had to survive living in London on a salary of £17,000 per year. If I was to abandon my principles and leave legal aid behind, with my current qualifications, I could expect to earn double my current salary.
When I told my father that I wanted to shun the ample opportunities in civil and commercial areas of law (even in the Magic Circle) as I dreamed of pursuing criminal law, he urged me to take a normal solicitor career path instead of volunteering for this low-paying ‘Mother Theresa’ life of a legal aid lawyer. Ironically, this has now become a perfectly apt description for the myriad of pro-bono (or otherwise seriously ill-paid) work that I charitably do for the good of others every day.
It rather gloomily feels like there is no actual future in legal aid. There are barely any decent young lawyers entering the profession. Our already poor pay continues to drop. The fees continue to be mercilessly cut. The quality of representation is in grave decline. The number of unrepresented defendants grows. The courts are severely clogged.
The injustice caused by legal aid cuts is infathomable to society and I fear it is too late to reverse the significant and irreparable damage that has already been done.