Pamela Lalbachan swapped a career in the arts and broadcasting for social welfare law. She is a Justice First Fellow at the South West London Law Centres and will qualify in February 2019.
I did a degree in Spanish and Latin American studies, and spent a large part of it studying international relations and developing countries. I had always wanted to work in an area that would help improve peoples’ lives.
It was when I was called up for jury service that I became hooked on the law. I enjoyed it so much that I asked to stay on longer than the allotted two weeks.
I was very close to my grandmother, and when she sadly died, I used the inheritance she left me to study for the graduate diploma in law. I went on to do the legal practice course, and was revising for my final immigration exam when I applied to become a Justice First Fellow.
My career hasn’t been planned out, but I have been lucky.
Being a law centre trainee was a steep learning curve. I was treated as a fee-earner from the start of my training contract, which involved me taking responsibility for cases, dealing with my own clients, attending court, and constantly learning and developing, while under supervision.
The toughest part of my training was being housing duty solicitor at Croydon and Wandsworth County Courts. The scheme provides last-minute help to people facing eviction or repossession. Initially, I found advocacy extremely daunting and did not enjoy it one bit. However, after a number of sessions of shadowing, I was thrown in at the deep end, which I now realise was the best way to learn.
Working within a relatively small organisation means that there are opportunities to take on responsibility very quickly and to get involved with other areas of charity work, including fundraising. SWLLC is the largest law centre and I’ve learned from many successful legal aid lawyers.
Most welfare benefits advice was taken out of scope by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. My Justice First Fellowship project was to set up an advice service, staffed by student volunteers, to help clients apply for benefits, and to appeal refusals. Every application we made was successful, and we won all but one appeal.
Welfare benefit problems are often linked to other legal issues, such as with housing, and the law centre helps those who are ineligible for legal aid. Providing the service brings people to the law centre and enables clients to enforce their rights. The project also gives students practical experience that should help them to get training contracts or paralegal work.
Legal aid work can be arduous; getting funding for clients is time-consuming and bureaucratic. But it is hugely rewarding to help people who really need it, and to see the difference solving legal problems makes to their lives. It makes all my hard study worthwhile. You use the law not only to help vulnerable people, but to uphold a wider responsibility to one another, to ensure the welfare of individuals and communities.
The people who come to us are in urgent situations and you need to act quickly. Clients do not always come with single issues, but intermeshed problems. You need to be creative, so you can think holistically to find resolutions and to present your case. You also need empathy and patience.
One welfare benefit client with many health problems sticks in my memory. He was strong and spirited despite his illnesses. Throughout the appeal process, he had a frailty about him. On the day of his appeal hearing, he told me that he didn’t know how he’d cope if he lost. He had overcome so many difficulties, but I was worried about him. Fortunately, he won and received backdated payments – but his anxiety has stayed with me.
My legal hero is the 18th century barrister and politician, William Garrow. He helped reform the advocacy process, which led to the adversarial court system and the notion that a person should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
My advice to anyone thinking about becoming a legal aid lawyer would be to consider it carefully. It has to be a passion because it is challenging.
Access to justice allows someone their dignity, and the opportunity to defend their rights. It should be available to all, regardless of their education, economic position, or background.
The JFF scheme is unique and the support from The Legal Education Foundation is much appreciated. It is great to have a group of other like-minded social welfare lawyers to learn from and throw ideas around with. All the fellows are so enthusiastic. It is energising and inspiring – and I have made some good friends.