The Legal Education Foundation’s Justice First Fellowship scheme is now into its third year. This groundbreaking scheme aims to train social welfare lawyers to become future leaders of the profession. This is the first in a series of articles by fellows. Deirdre Flanigan, 31, is a Justice First Fellow and trainee solicitor at Govan Law Centre in Glasgow. Founded in 1995, it focuses on tackling unmet legal need and areas of social disadvantage. Deirdre was previously the outreach coordinator at the Scottish Human Rights Commission, and will qualify in January 2017.
The best thing about being a legal aid lawyer is that you get to sort out problems that clients wouldn’t have gotten sorted without you. That is magic.
The worst thing is that the job is never done. People have complex needs and helping them sort out one part of their quite difficult lives, doesn’t always mean there is a happy ending.
One client who sticks in my mind is Scott. Scott is about my age, but when he was 16 he suffered a knife attack and was paralysed from the neck down. He has a C4 spinal injury and was in hospital for a year. When he came out he was given accommodation and carers so that he could live as independently as possible. He became a fulltime student and had an active social life – quite similar to anybody of his age.
But his needs were reassessed by social services, which decided his care package should be halved and that he should move into shared accommodation. Whatever excuse was given, the bottom line is that this was done to save money.
We are fighting his case on the ground that the decision to evict him from his home is such an egregious violation of his article 8 rights to private and family life that is it unjustifiable.
The cut seems so unnecessary. There are not many people with Scott’s level of injury and the reassessment is part of a bureaucratic process that will totally change his life. I have been really struck by the impact on Scott’s mental health. He told me: ‘If society doesn’t want me, I don’t want to be here’. I struggled not to burst into tears.
An important part of the Fellowship programme is that each of us undertakes a project to increase access to justice. My project looked at economic and social rights in a human rights capacity, and sought to develop an evidence base on the impact of the UK and Scottish governments’ policies on vulnerable groups.
In tandem with that, the principal solicitor Mike Dailly and I started a public interest litigation project, taking priority human rights test cases, which we fed into the UN’s review of compliance by the UK of its International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The report is designed to demonstrate areas where policy change is needed and to put pressure from the UN committee on the Scottish and UK governments to act. I included two case studies, one of which is Scott’s, as I thought it was really important to make sure clients’ voices are heard.
I also wanted to encourage small community groups to get involved with the UN reporting projects. While big NGOs often contribute, smaller organisations, which could give a more accurate picture from the coalface, don’t. The UN is actually very accessible and getting involved with projects that have a high impact, is quite straightforward.
We will base our next test cases on the areas that the UN’s report suggests need attention and over the coming years we will turn our attention to rights of people with disabilities, which will come under scrutiny from the UN. The work will never stop.
Legal aid lawyers need the three Ps – personality, patience and perspective. Personality to match that of their clients, who will have plenty. Patience, because you are dealing with complex needs and need to be patient with clients and with the Legal aid board. Perspective, because you are working within a wider social justice picture, so if you don’t get the result you wanted, you have to recognise that it was important that the process was done.
My advice to anyone looking to work in legal aid, but who lacks the means to access the profession, would be to get a job doing something that contributes to social justice and wait until the time that you can train to be a lawyer.
Access to justice is important because usually the same people who struggle to access justice will struggle to access other rights too.
One part of the fellowship programme that I have particularly enjoyed has been the links with other fellows and the Legal Education Foundation and its network of interesting and inspirational contacts.
The Legal Education Foundation has announced the 11 solicitor organisations who will be hosting JFF trainees from January 2017. Applications open on 15 August, and candidates are asked to demonstrate commitment to social welfare issues (more here).