Ronagh Craddock, 26, is a Justice First Fellow and trainee at North East firm Ben Hoare Bell. In June 2016, Ronagh was named trainee of the year at the Northern Law Awards and she is the national representative for the North East Junior Lawyers Division.
I was drawn to social justice work because I want to contribute to creating a fair society. Equality before the law is an essential part of that.
I saw the Justice First Fellowship as an opportunity to tackle the problem of reduced access to justice creatively. I want to do what I can to give the most vulnerable the same quality of service as those who can afford to pay.
All Justice First Fellows have responsibility for a project aimed at increasing access to justice. My project focuses on 16-25 year olds in Newcastle, raising awareness of their rights, and providing legal services in a youth-focused way. I have been working with local youth centres that deal with particularly disengaged young people.
Some of the organisations I have been talking to include Youth Access, North East Youth Focus, Streetwise, the YMCA and the Byker Community Centre. If public legal education is to increase young people’s access to justice, it needs to not just help them understand their rights and how the justice system works, but also equip them with the necessary communication skills and confidence.
My project has developed in ways I had not foreseen, which is great! I am working with the North East Refugee Service (NERS) to include people of all ages who have been granted the right to remain in the UK. Their needs are the same as those of young people – a need for an introduction to the legal system in this country, to understand their rights within that system and how to enforce them, plus where to go to get help. They also need the skills to engage with these systems.
I feel really privileged to be able to welcome refugees to our country.
I chose to focus on 16-25 year olds because they are shown to experience rights-based problems at the same rate as the rest of population, but are much less likely to seek advice.
UNICEF reports have repeatedly shown that the social and emotional health of young people in the UK is poor. And reports from the UK have highlighted that unresolved legal problems, with things like housing, employment or welfare benefits, can damage people’s social, emotional and mental health, reducing their confidence and badly affecting relationships. Equally, research shows that when young people get the right advice, this has a positive effect on these factors and, more generally, leads to better social cohesion.
Without a doubt, the best thing about being a legal aid lawyer is the sense that I am doing meaningful work that is making a difference to people.
The worst thing is having to turn away clients, because there is no funding available or no capacity because the demand for help is so great.
A good legal aid lawyer should have organisation skills, compassion and resilience.
The client I will never forget was from Lebanon, seeking asylum for himself and his family. It was during my first seat as a trainee. They had entered the UK just after Christmas in 2015 and claimed asylum days afterwards. Despite having children aged one and eight, and no income or savings, they managed to slip through all the cracks in our system that is meant to help destitute people.
When they approached me for advice in Newcastle they had been homeless in the UK on and off for three months. Due to Home Office delays in processing their claim for asylum support, they had had no income at all. They had survived on the ad hoc support of strangers and charities such as the Red Cross.
We were able to secure temporary accommodation from the local authority and press the Home Office for a decision on the family’s claim for asylum support. The claim was refused, but we successfully appealed the decision with the help of the Asylum Support Appeals Project.
I take inspiration from the people I work with. My firm has plenty brilliant female role models, such as Cris McCurley, who goes above and beyond to fight for the interests of her clients; and Katharine Lawrence, who juggles being trainee principal, head of the mental health team, a partner, a judge and a mother – among other things.
I’d advise anyone thinking of becoming a legal aid lawyer that the reward of the work is in the results you get for your client’s and the privilege of working for a marginalised client base. Think about whether that would keep you motivated.
You need to be prepared to struggle for it and work hard. Also be creative in how you get your experience – you will need to be able to show your passion and your experience of working with a vulnerable client base. You can demonstrate that in many ways without actually working in law. During university I founded a Human Rights Society, volunteered at the Citizens Advice Bureau and as a primary school teacher in India. Following graduation I worked for three years as a paralegal in international family law representing BME (black and minority ethnic) women.
Access to justice matters because it is the foundation of democracy. It is pointless to have rights, if we have no means of enforcing them.
JFF is bringing something new to the legal world at a time when it can be sometimes bleak, not least through the diversity of the Fellows coming through. I look forward to seeing what the JFF and all of us Fellows will do next.