Harriet Dudbridge, 26, is a Justice First Fellow. As part of the scheme, she spent a year as a caseworker at the Bar Pro Bono Unit and has now started pupillage at St John’s Chambers in Bristol, specialising in family law.
I was drawn to the JFF scheme because of its emphasis on social welfare law. Social welfare law is often the safety net to catch those who have been harmed or wronged by other people, or government policies.
I previously worked in a dementia care home, where I saw how the law could be used to change the lives of the most vulnerable. The experience has given me a particular interest in Court of Protection work, involving aspects of mental capacity and deprivation of liberty.
The JFF brings together a close-knit group of like-minded lawyers with similar aspirations. This field brings its own specific challenges and it is great that the scheme offers a supportive network in what can be an under-resourced area of law.
During my time at the Bar Pro Bono Unit, I worked with my fellow JFF pupil Naima Asif on our project, ‘My Voice; My Choice: The Rights of the Child within Family Law’, which aims to go into schools to teach children about the family courts and their role within them.
We want to empower children in a system that they often do not learn about until they are in it. We focused on four topics: care proceedings; private child law; FGM and forced marriage; domestic violence and healthy relationships. I enjoyed adapting complex legal principles for a teenage audience.
Our aim is to go into secondary schools to present these topics to Key Stage Three children. We have already made our first presentation, on care proceedings, to an audience of 30 children. Watching the children present their arguments, using the legal principles we taught them and wearing a barrister’s wig, was a great experience and something I shall never forget.
Running a project from an idea to actual operation, while working full time, is challenging, but it has improved my organisational, research and project management skills.
The best thing about being a legal aid lawyer is that your work is all about individuals. Stalling eviction notices, changing child arrangement orders or gaining additional educational provision for a child with special needs, can have such an immediate and potentially life-changing impact.
More generally, as an advocate you are enabling an individual to put their voice forward in the appropriate legal way, a task that can be difficult for an litigant in person who does not have legal training.
The worst thing about being a legal aid lawyer is that it can be incredibly frustrating to work in a system where funding is so restricted. Lack of funding often leads to lack of legal representation, which can lead to inequality of arms.
A good legal aid lawyer needs resilience. It can be incredibly frustrating and you are just going to have to work to the best of your ability in an imperfect system.
Communication skills are also key. You have to communicate with a wide spectrum of people, extract salient information from emotional lay clients and translate that into persuasive legal argument. Integrity is also important. You take on a lot of personal responsibility in your cases. You must be able to inspire trust in your clients, remain calm and focused in times of stress, and be empathetic and kind, while also being professional and aware of your role as an advocate.
Working at the Bar Pro Bono Unit, we had over 200 live cases at a time. Once we had successfully placed a case, applicants would often get back in contact to let us know what had happened. One applicant thanked us for giving her a voice in a landscape she could not understand, and putting an end to a seven-year chapter in her life. It struck me how much difference a few hours of a barrister’s time can make to peoples’ lives.
My advice to someone looking to become a legal aid lawyer is to do your research. Follow solicitors or barristers who are in practice, so you gain an accurate appreciation of what they do. Once you have decided it is the career for you, don’t let anyone put you off. It is a difficult and uncertain area of law, but if you’ve made an informed choice that you are passionate about it, then persevere, and get as much practical experience as possible.
Access to justice matters because the right was enshrined in the Magna Carta. But today, many people lacking means are unable to seek legal redress. Some of the most vulnerable will be taken advantage of by those with greater resources, often in circumstances where so much is at stake for them.