Stephen Cutter is a Justice First Fellow at drugs charity Release. He is due to complete his training and qualify as a solicitor in 2019. You can read others in the series here
It’s hard for someone to engage fully with their drug treatment if they have problems with welfare benefits, debts, eviction, or homelessness. The services we work with tell us that clients who are less anxious and depressed because their legal issues have been dealt with, are more likely to complete their drug treatment.
When someone’s damp and mouldy home is repaired and their lung condition improves, they are less likely to need urgent medical appointments. That’s good for them, but has wider benefits – those appointments can now be booked by someone else. GPs aren’t spending time on things which are beyond their power to resolve, and our clients can be doing something other than visiting the surgery.
I am aiming to develop a sustainable model for delivering social welfare law services in healthcare settings, for my Justice First Fellowship project. I am also working on a research to provide evidence of the impact of timely legal advice on people’s health, how much it helps them engage with other services, and the costs savings to those services.
Many of my clients have been carrying around a growing problem for years, through stressful times in their life. It is great to see the relief that comes from knowing their problems have been dealt with, or when a tribunal agrees with them that they are too unwell to work.
The worst thing about my work is seeing the impact of government policy on our client group: for example, how universal credit affects people in insecure work, or the way people are criminalised for minor drugs offences.
In 2016, there were 44,000 criminal records for possession of drugs for personal use. This has a devastating impact on people, who have to disclose their record when they apply for jobs, and it has a disproportionate impact on people of colour, or who are poor. Release’s own research found black people are five times more likely than white people to be charged with possession of cannabis, rather than cautioned or warned. It is a bad system being implemented badly, particularly when studies have concluded that criminalising people for using drugs has no impact on the prevalence of drug use.
To be a good legal aid lawyer you must have technical creativity. You will deal with clients who may not have a proper response that will neatly resolve the problem, but there may have been a procedural defect that introduces the possibility of securing enough of a delay, so that the client can decide what their Plan B looks like.
You also need patience and flexibility – as clients will rarely come in with their papers – never mind having them in order. You need to realise that you’re dealing with vulnerable people at chaotic times in their lives. No one wants to see a lawyer, so you have to understand that they are there for help, and not to be judged for the decisions that led them to you.
My fictional legal hero is Sandy Cohen in The OC television series. He seems to combine his legal practice with a daily surf and all-round easy-going air.
My real legal hero is George Brunschvig, a Swiss lawyer and president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, who successfully sued the Swiss Nazi party for publishing anti-semitic propaganda. It was a fantastic example of using technical creativity and patience, but also shows the role the law plays in agitating.
I know it’s a complete cliché, but access to justice matters because rights are meaningless if they can’t be enforced. It is difficult now for some people to discover if their rights are being breached, let alone how they can go about remedying and enforcing them. There is a risk that our society is creating groups of ‘others’ who are seen as less deserving of help, and so are marginalised and cannot access to justice.
Anyone thinking of becoming a legal aid lawyer should use any opportunity available to learn. I studied both the Graduate Diploma in Law and Legal Practice Course part-time, due to work commitments. I benefitted hugely from reading case law and legal blogs to help understand how the law developed, and you can also join groups and sign up for newsletters in areas of law that interest you.
I was also very fortunate to get first-hand experience in some areas of social welfare law, and have some of my course costs covered, by joining BPP’s Pro Bono Centre as a member of staff. The roles I had there gave me experience in working with community outreach programmes, and then later in managing their Legal Advice Clinic. Part of my interview panel for that role was with someone who was leaving BPP to become one of the first Justice First Fellows, which was how I found the job I was going to apply for next.
Sometimes luck is going to play a significant role and by doing things, or turning up to things, it can help increase the possibility of that luck happening.
The JFF scheme gives you the opportunity to be part of a wider network of people. Without the Fellowship, I can definitely see how the life of a trainee could feel quite solitary, whereas instead I have a great network of peers. It’s also brilliant at putting me in contact with people I would not otherwise have the chance to meet.
To help with my project, the Fellowship has put me in rooms with people who have been working on the link between health and access to legal advice for decades. Being able to listen and consider their experience is invaluable. One of the long-term goals of the Fellowship is to ensure our work is sustainable, so these connections and ability to build on what already exists is vital.