I am a junior criminal defence solicitor, fighting the good fight despite the damage done by legal aid cuts

noun_89997_ccThere 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.

I am a criminal legal aid lawyer applying for prosecution roles where my salary will double

icon_4259I am a newly qualified solicitor practising in criminal defence and prison law. My salary is £19,000.

Depending on what is in the diary I may be leaving my house at any time from 6am onwards for prison visits, disciplinary hearings or Parole Board hearings. These visits are very regular and take up significant time due to extensive travelling. If I am office based for the day, I usually arrive at 8:30am to take advantage of the quiet time before the phone starts ringing.

It is really difficult to describe a ‘typical day’ as matters and client issues come up often. During the day I may be called to cover a police station attendance, an urgent remand court hearing or cover for colleagues who have been called away themselves. It is not unusual to have to cover appointments or see clients when they attend the office outside of a pre-arranged appointment or cover client meetings when the assigned solicitor is otherwise engaged. This typically means having to get ‘on top of the papers’ in a very quick space of time to be able to take instructions and provide solid advice. On a quiet day, which has run according to my diary, I am able to leave the office between 5pm – 5:30pm. The out of hours call rota for the police stations, late night client meetings or at home preparation for the following day usually keeps me working into the evening from the relative comfort of my dining table.

I currently earn £19,000 which was increased from my training salary of £17,000. With this, I have to run a house and a car which is vital for my work. I am compensated on a low level for mileage but this is paid in arrears and out of office hours travelling time (e.g. setting off at 7:30am for a 9am start) is unpaid and flexi-working is not possible. I have credit card debt which is slowly being chipped away at but it is difficult to make ends meet with the rising costs of living. It is not unusual to have a fridge that only has milk and cheese in and because I am tired, I often don’t shop for groceries. The risks of buying a big grocery shop and being unable to afford to fuel my car is a very real worry.

I love my job, I love the clients, and despite the problems, I (generally) like how busy I am. The pay however is difficult to stomach and I am currently applying for prosecution roles where my salary will effectively double. It is not all about the money, but I sometimes feel that I would qualify for legal aid myself.

Without sounding selfish, the pay for legal aid lawyers is forcing us out of the profession and is unsustainable. If that continues to happen then our clients will suffer. I do not know of any legal aid lawyer who entered legal aid practice for the riches, but struggling to make ends meet leaves a sour taste in the mouth. We all want to help our clients and I am deeply saddened by having to leave criminal defence legal aid work, but it is now becoming a financial decision.

Legal aid cuts have left Law Centres struggling to keep our doors open

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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.

I work more than 12 hour days, and get £12,000 a year to work in criminal defence.

I am a 24 year old trainee solicitor working in crime. I get paid £12,000 and work over 12 hours days.

I arrive noun_33418_ccat work at 8am. Phone calls from clients start now and end about 10pm

At 9:30 I have a prison visit. I normally sit around for 1 hour whilst my clientis found.

At 11am I check my mail, usually legal aid forms or certificates around 5 per day. I have to telephone clients who have filled in forms incorrectly (a high proportion of illiterate /vulnerable / elderly clients who don’t understand what the forms are actually asking and a lot of time is spent explaining the client situation to the court).

I typically do some legal research,admin and billing throughout the day. Admin usually means lots of time on hold to, or chasing, the  Legal Aid Agency, the police or the local council.

If I have to go to court, I will finish there at 4:30. When the court lists come out, I have to  check that we are still covered. Inevitably, I find that things have been pulled or moved up at the eleventh hour.

At 5pm I have client and barrister meetings so that my clients don’t have to take time off work.

I leave the office anywhere between 6pm and 9pm. I am on call for 12 hour shifts between 9pm and 9am about four times a month.

I’m 24, living with my parents, earning £12,000. I have a car loan to pay off and have to have a car for my job. I have an LPC loan to pay off which is crippling. I can’t afford day to day living as once I’ve paid the loans and helped out with household expenses there’s £200 left.

I am worried about the cuts, not for my  own struggle, that is essentially a choice, but I wonder how many people they expect to help clients on a pro bono basis? Access to justice is being totally denied.

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.

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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.