Ollie Persey, 26, is a trainee barrister and Justice First Fellow at the Public Law Project (PLP), and a committee member of Young Legal Aid Lawyers. His fellowship includes helping with PLP’s litigation, policy and research work, in addition to pupillage. He is due to qualify in September 2019. You can read the others in this series here.
It was the foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2007 that first got me interested in public law. My dad is a farmer and was the lead claimant in a judicial review to challenge government’s refusal to hold a public inquiry into the outbreak. I then took part in two mock trial competitions and did a week’s work experience at Matrix chambers during my A-levels, which confirmed my interest in becoming a public law barrister.
In 2016, I organised the first RebLaw UK conference. I wasn’t sure how many people would come but tickets sold out in 24 hours. Shauneen Lambe, co-founder of Just for Kids Law, gave the keynote address.
I wanted to emulate the Rebellious Lawyering conference started by students at Yale University two decades ago, which brings together students, grassroots activists, and lawyers to discuss how law can be used as a tool for social change. The conference took its name and inspiration from a book by American law professor Gerald P López’s, published in 1992.
RebLaw UK is now into its second year. Sessions are chaired by students and have covered issues from animal rights to violence against women, and the problems faced by refugees. They cover subjects not taught on undergraduate law courses and bring together a new community to devise creative strategies for addressing these issues.
There is so much negativity about a career in legal aid. Undoubtedly, it’s a hugely difficult route, primarily for financial reasons, but also because dealing with vulnerable people on a daily basis is emotionally challenging.
RebLaw UK was intended to be inspiring and positive. I remember one session in particular, where Claire Dissington spoke about communicating with vulnerable clients in her work as a youth justice solicitor. Claire’s obvious passion for fighting for young clients in a broken system left students literally open mouthed.
The next one is planned for November and will be organised by current University of Law students.
I took part in the New York Civil Liberties Clinic, while studying for an LLM at New York University School of Law. It offers students the opportunity to work on civil rights litigation with the American Civil Liberties Union. For my Justice First Fellowship project, I have set up a similar scheme here, where students at the London School of Economics (where I also teach) work with Public Law Project. We have just completed the pilot with three LSE LLM students providing valuable support to PLP. The students have helped us to advise grassroots organisations on how to use public law to improve unfair systems that affect people with multiple and severe disadvantages.
Aside from having a project, one of the best things about the JFF scheme is being part of a cohort with such diverse backgrounds, but who all share a commitment to social justice.
The best thing about being a legal aid lawyer is when you win.
The first case I worked on at PLP was RF v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, a judicial review of changes to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) regulations, introduced in February 2017, which excluded those with mental health conditions from receiving mobility payments.
The High Court found that the rules were unlawful and discriminated against people with mental health impairments. We won on all three of grounds. The court quashed the regulations, and the government did not appeal. It is now reviewing the claims of 1.6 million people. It was a pretty cool first case.
On the JFF scheme, I am lucky to have my salary paid by AB Charitable Trust and The Legal Education Foundation, so one of the worst things about being a legal aid barrister – the financial insecurity- does not affect me.
It can be frustrating seeing the relentlessly negative press coverage of people who apparently shouldn’t receive legal aid. This narrative totally overlooks that legal aid is being cut from the most disadvantaged and is an essential lifeline for access to justice.
The three qualities you most need to be a legal aid lawyer are: good humour – it can be relentlessly bleak due to funding constraints and it is easy for low morale to set in; the ability to listen and empathise; and determination to cope with the long hours and volume of work.
My legal aid heroes are my colleagues at PLP.
My advice to anyone looking to pursue a career in legal aid is they should attend as many events as possible and make as many contacts as they can. You should never be afraid to ask people for help in pursuing your career. It has been important for me to have mentors and people to advise me, whether it has been looking over my pupillage applications, giving me interview help, or providing speaker suggestions for RebLaw. Also, play your part in making sure legal aid has a sustainable future in whatever way you can. Support campaigns to save access to justice and get involved with groups like Young Legal Aid Lawyers.
- My Justice First Fellow: Ollie Persey - 18th May 2018
- Government spending review: prison reforms risk ‘population explosion’ - 26th November 2015