Irzum Mahmood, 28, is a Justice First Fellow and trainee at Govan Law Centre. She is due to qualify in August 2017. . See other Justice First Fellows in the series here.
Volunteering at Govanhill Law Centre during my law degree opened my eyes. I saw the inequality and discrimination that vulnerable and marginalised people face, and how the law can create almost impossible barriers for them. Helping clients solve the issues they faced on a daily basis really resonated with me. I knew this was the area of law for me.
The Justice First Fellowship scheme tied in with this perfectly, as it focuses on social welfare law and allows trainees to create our own projects, aimed at increasing access to justice. Being able to work on something you are passionate about, with the support of the law centre and The Legal Education Foundation, is an incredible opportunity.
My project involves setting up a legal clinic to meet the needs of the black and minority ethnic (BME) communities, and breaking down the barriers that stop them obtaining legal advice. It will target those who do not speak English, do not have English as their first language, or have difficulty understanding English,
I am currently running a pilot clinic at a multi-cultural advice centre. I hope the clinic will grow to become a sustainable means of accessing to justice for BME people.
I had an inspirational moment recently, when I appeared in front of a female ethnic minority sheriff. This was very unusual, as the vast majority of sheriffs are male and white. It showed me that barriers can be broken down if you are willing to work hard enough to make a difference.
The best thing about being a legal aid lawyer is being able to help disadvantaged people, and being able to explain we can help them, even though they can’t afford to pay.
The worst thing about being a legal aid lawyer is realising that you can’t always help every single client that comes through the door.
A good legal aid lawyer must have empathy, passion and good communication skills. Empathy because, if you can’t understand what the client has gone through before seeking your help, you won’t be able to develop the trust and confidence that is so vital in this type of solicitor-client relationship.
Passion, because working in social welfare law is not an easy ride. There will be times when you will feel frustrated and angry about the lack of progress or understanding from other organisations when you are trying to enforce your client’s rights.
Good communication skills, because you regularly have to break down technical legal terms into easy-to-understand language, and you will be interacting with a wide range of clients and organisations.
A client who stands out is an ethnic minority single mum of three, whose home was being repossessed. She had limited rights to the property. She spoke little English and had mental health issues. One of her children had autism, and her estranged husband’s behaviour was punishing.
By building a relationship and gaining her trust, we were able to uncover other issues she was facing, including the fact that she had been wrongly refused Employment and Support Allowance. Her husband was refusing to make needed repairs to the house, and she couldn’t afford to do these herself. When she couldn’t pay the mortgage, her home was repossessed.
We were able to help with her benefit problems and increase her income. We supported her through the homelessness process, and worked with her family law solicitor to ensure that she would receive funds from the sale of the property.
After enforcing her rights, our client became more confident and empowered. By the end, she understood the importance of asserting her rights, even if the result wasn’t what she had originally hoped for.
Being a legal aid lawyer is very demanding but it is also one of the most worthwhile and rewarding roles in the legal sector.
Access to justice matters because it is one of the most fundamental principles in our society; without it people can’t exercise their basic rights. Justice should not follow an individual’s class or position in society, but should be available for all.
I have really enjoyed the JFF conferences. I feel privileged to be part of such an amazing scheme. Every time I attend, I take away so much from the sessions. I am able to meet really inspiring individuals and catch up with the other Fellows and build a long-lasting network.