This (young legal aid) life: Katherine Barnes

It’s Wednesday morning and I’ve set my alarm for 5.30am. I’m in court this morning and still have some material to prepare. I make some coffee and settle down to look at the new documents, which my solicitor sent through late yesterday evening. Read other articles in The (young legal aid) life series here.

I am representing a local authority at an appeal against a child’s education, health and care plan. The mother says the plan doesn’t recognise her severely autistic son’s special educational needs and the provision listed to meet his needs is not enough. The local authority says that the plan meets the child’s needs, so does not require any amendment.

I get to court and meet my expert witnesses. There is no sign of the child’s mother. My final witness arrives and says he’s seen the mother sitting on the curb clutching a coffee and looking terrified. I’m not surprised. Many special educational needs cases are now heard in the Royal Courts of Justice, which is an intimidating building even for those of us who work in it. The mother appears soon after, all by herself, and cowers when she sees our large group on the other side of the waiting room. I introduce myself and explain that I am the barrister for the opposing side. She tells me that she had legal aid to help prepare her appeal but it does not extend to representation so she has to represent herself. She then hands me a large pile of documents I haven’t seen before.

The clerk appears and apologises for the lack of consultation rooms. He has a point. The one tiny room is already occupied. We have to stay together in a small waiting room. The mother finds this distressing. I try to be nice to her while simultaneously speed-reading the new documents.

We are called into the tribunal and the judge makes clear she is not happy. It is ridiculous that the hearing has only been listed for half a day when there is so much in dispute. She sends us out to try and agree as much as possible. There is nowhere for us to have our discussion as the waiting room is now full and the only consultation room is still being used. We walk down several floors and through the main building to a cafe on the main road.

When we start discussing the case, the mother starts to panic. I try to take her through each of the issues one by one but, she doesn’t trust me. Why would she, when I’m instructed by the local authority? She isn’t familiar with the working document because it was drafted by her legal aid solicitor. She is dyslexic and asks me to read bits to her.

We go back into the hearing, having made a bit of progress. When the judge sees the mother struggling and learns about her dyslexia, she is very angry. The local authority can’t be blamed for the withdrawal of legal aid for representation in education cases, I point out. Much later than scheduled, the hearing finished.

I check my phone and see several missed calls from my clerk. I head back to chambers, calling him on the way. A legal aid firm wants me to draft an urgent claim for judicial review. A local authority has refused to provide temporary accommodation to a mother with two small children who are about to be kicked out of their home. One of the children is disabled but this hasn’t been taken into account. Despite the urgency, the paralegal has still not heard back from the Legal Aid Agency about funding. We agree I should start the drafting anyway. But first, I head to my favourite café to buy coffee and cake. It’s going to be a long night.

Katherine Barnes

About Katherine Barnes

Katherine is a public law barrister at Francis Taylor Building

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