Quazim Khan is a Justice First Fellow and trainee solicitor at Greenwich Housing Rights. GHR is a registered charity, and recognised as a leading expert in housing advice. The Justice First Fellowship scheme was launched by The Legal Education Foundation in 2014, and aims to train social welfare lawyers to become future leaders of the profession. This is the second in a regular column, highlighting the work of the fellows. – see here.
I feel very proud when I represent clients in court and save someone’s home or get them accommodation. I can’t think of anything more rewarding.
My JFF project is the Greenwich Migrant Hub, which launched in April 2016. Based in Woolwich Common Community Centre, it provides immigration, housing and community care advice to destitute migrants. It also acts as a social space, and somewhere people can get support with health, domestic violence and help integrating into the local community.
We try to move away from the idea of treating people like ‘clients’ – many of the people who come to us feel excluded and marginalised. We want to show them respect and make them feel welcome. And we feel it is more welcoming to call people ‘visitors’.
The Hub is open every Tuesday, from 10.30am to 1.30pm. At 12.30pm, we all sit down and have a meal together. Food is provided by Fareshare, and volunteers help prepare it – it’s a bit like Ready Steady Cook as we do not know what food we have been given until Tuesday morning.
One of our volunteers is a trained chef, so the food is amazing. I have even been known to help in the kitchen – cutting peppers and grating some cheese, nothing too technical.
Many of our visitors are at risk of exploitation and abuse, because they lack awareness of their rights and have an element of uncertainty about their immigration status. One lady came in after getting a leaflet from the police about domestic violence. She had been suffering abuse from her husband and came in with her two young children. When she outlined her story to me, she started crying. Her husband was a British citizen and she had come here on a spouse’s visa. He controlled everything she did and was physically violent to her. He told her that she had no right be here and that if she left him, she wouldn’t get any benefits and would be deported.
I am particularly proud of this case, because it demonstrates what the centre’s joined-up community approach can achieve. Because we had someone at the hub from a women’s refuge, this lady was able to be assessed and move into the refuge with her children on the same day – and they had lunch with us before they moved in. It was a good result.
One frustration that I have with the legal system is that problems are narrowed into different areas of law, instead of being treated as if they are joined up. It is hard for people to find a one-stop shop, where they can deal with all of their issues.
I grew up in Sheffield and graduated in 2009. My first legal job was at Howells Solicitors in Sheffield, giving housing advice on the telephone as part of community legal advice. After being made redundant, I then had to decide what I wanted to do with my career. I went back to university, moved in with parents and paid for myself to do the Legal Practice Course, while I looked for a training contract. I felt very lucky when I found out about the fellowship scheme. I was delighted when I was accepted, and got a training contract at Greenwich Housing Rights and the opportunity to undertake the project. It was a Godsend. I will qualify next year.
To be a good legal aid lawyer, the most important thing is having good communication skills, due to the nature of the clients. You need to be able to listen and provide clear advice. A lot of people are reluctant to seek help, but if they have queued to see you for an hour, you know they need your help.
The best thing about being a legal aid lawyer is the client contact and helping people who are in desperate situations. When you have made a positive difference to someone’s life, you can go home with a big smile on your face.
The worst thing about being a legal aid lawyer is the sheer volume of work and number of people in need. It seems as if it’s getting worse and worse. We have a drop-in clinic twice a week. People start queuing outside from an hour before the session starts. At times people are queuing before I arrive at work.
The advice I’d give to anyone thinking of becoming a legal aid lawyer is don’t give up hope. While you look for a training contract, there are lots of organisations that you can work with, and some great opportunities like those given by The Legal Education Foundation. People should be flexible, committed and stay with it – the rewards are much greater than any sacrifices we have to make.
My role model is my father. I saw what he had to go through and how hard he had to work when he came to this country from Pakistan in the early 1970s. He put his focus on his children, and that has allowed me to do well.
Access to justice matters because it gives a voice to people who are vulnerable and in need and who otherwise would not be heard.
Recruitment for the 2016 Justice First Fellowship posts will open on 15 August 2016. Candidates must have completed the Legal Practice Course (or equivalent) and be able to demonstrate commitment to social justice. www.thelegaleducationfoundation.org