Anger and pride

800 words for a blog on legal aid? Where should I start? Cuts? Government attacks on legal aid? The bureaucracy facing legal aid lawyers? The appalling difficulties for those with limited finances in becoming a lawyer? These are all issues of great concern but perhaps I could write this time about the enormous importance of legal aid work and legal aid practitioners.

Anger and pride
Let’s first of all be clear. Practitioners do ask me how I can bear to keep on doing this job and generally I try to be careful about how I reply. But in reality it is a mixture of anger and pride. Not my pride but pride in supporting those delivering legal aid services.
I am angry when I see the government attack legal aid knowing that their attacks are incorrect or based on no evidence. When the government uses sloppy phrases about a litigation culture which ignores the fact that research shows cases are declining. When the government talks about unmeritorious legal aid cases when it knows full well that there are checks and balances in place. It annoys me to see a positive story about legal aid and the next day blanket coverage of an unpopular story – no doubts about where that came from.
I am angry at how much time is wasted. Legal aid lawyers are professionals who have to give a quality level of service or face considerable consequences. Complaints, fines, disciplinary findings. It is difficult to navigate professional obligations when payment is often low.
However the unpaid time involved in meeting contract standards makes me want to weep. If all that non-chargeable time of dealing with the intricacies of the system could be simplified, I suspect that every organisation delivering services could probably help another 276,000 people a year – that’s based on one person in each of the 3000 offices seeing two extra people a week over a 46 week year.
But balanced against this anger is pride in representing members. They are knowledgeable, hard-working, compassionate and even when they are at their wit’s end they send emails brimming with humanity and intelligence.
When I read the anonymous postings on websites where someone rants about lawyers feeding off peoples’ misery, I have to restrain myself from either writing a short pithy statement about isn’t that what the medical profession does – treat people who are ill? While lawyers help people who have a legal problem – in a complex society it is surely A GOOD THING to have experts doing this.
So how can we get some good publicity for those who carry out legal aid work? It is (with a few exceptions) difficult to get the press interested in the importance of the work. Local newspapers may print articles but firms and NfPs (not-for-profit organisations) have little time to contact them or prepare press releases.
LAPG runs the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards to celebrate the work of lawyers and we are very grateful to sponsors who enable this to continue. It is now in its tenth year and many of our sponsors have been involved for years. This year LegalVoice are involved as sponsors for the first time.
I am not a judge but I sit in on the judging meetings. Beforehand I look through the nominations and prepare copies for the judges. Honestly, I have to sit with a box of tissues because the stories are so moving. The tales are every day to the firms and NfPs involved but really heroic and awe inspiring. Some clients are the most marginalised in society. I know from when I was in private practice and at NfP organisations that colleagues would do enormous amounts that were above and beyond what the LSC pays for. You would not just press for emergency accommodation for a vulnerable person who would otherwise be street homeless. You would stay however late it was to ensure that accommodation was found and then find money for the person to get there. You would ensure that children were not in your office for six hours without food. You would take whatever humanitarian steps were needed to deliver a compassionate service. And many, many hours of that would be unbillable.
I do not recognise the description of legal aid lawyers as preying on the poor. It may suit the government to say that. This is what I recognise: people who have worked very hard to enter the legal profession, who have often sustained considerable levels of debt to do so, who choose legal aid work because of their belief in the importance of social justice. They believe that having no money should not exclude you from enforcing your rights. They believe that a functioning democracy means that law should not just be for the rich and comfortably off.
Well done to LegalVoice for launching their new online magazine. Anything that supports access to justice and legal aid practitioners will be supported by LAPG.

Carol Storer

About Carol Storer

Carol is director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group

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