This (young legal aid) life: Mary-Rachel McCabe

Monday morning and I’m in chambers finishing a skeleton argument. At 11.30am, one of the Doughty Street clerks phones. Can I take on an urgent case? It’s a judicial review of a London local authority, which is refusing to accommodate a mother and her two children, who are street homeless. Emergency legal aid has been applied for.

  • This is the first in a regular series of written columns by members of Young Legal Aid Lawyers. For more stories like here.

The JR papers arrive at 3pm; I start going through the bundle.

The children are five and three. Their mum came to the UK from Uganda 10 years ago with her then husband. He became increasingly violent after the children were born and eventually she fled, taking the children with her. She found a job and accommodation for the three of them, and things were fine for a while. Then she lost her job, and the family rapidly became homeless. They had spent the last four nights sleeping in the reception of their local A&E. Social services had refused to help.

Their situation is desperate and the solicitor wants to issue proceedings tomorrow. I start drafting grounds to challenge the local authority’s refusal to treat them as ‘children in need’, under section 17 of the Children Act 1989.

Papers relating to the case continue to come through into the evening: a letter from the local authority, at 5.30pm (still refusing to budge, despite numerous pre-action letters from the solicitor); a witness statement from the mum at 9pm.

I finish the draft around midnight and send it over to the solicitor.

Tuesday 9am, I arrive at Camberwell Green magistrates’ court. My client’s worried parents are there, and I speak to them while we wait for their daughter to arrive from prison. She is 27 and was recently discharged from a psychiatric unit, after she was sectioned following her third overdose. She has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction from a young age. Her former partner, the father of her young child, was violent towards her.

I discuss bail addresses with her parents – and realise that there is nowhere for her to go.

My client can’t live with her dad, because he’s a prosecution witness in another criminal damage case against her. He has told the police he doesn’t want to cooperate with the prosecution any more. He only gave them a statement, because he thought it would help his daughter get proper help. (It didn’t.)

Her mother has custody of my client’s child, with whom she is not permitted any contact, so she can’t stay there. Her boyfriend is living in a hostel for recovering drug addicts, so that’s no good, either.

The client arrives around 11am, and I go to speak to her in the cells. We are the same age, but she looks much younger. She sits in the corner of her cell, cradling her knees. Her arms are a mass of scars. She is sorry about the ‘mess’ she has got herself into.

I explain she has been charged with common assault of a nurse and criminal damage to a door. The offences allegedly happened on the psychiatric ward, when she was a voluntary patient. Four medical staff have given statements against her.

She says she was restrained by three staff, after an argument with a nurse about medication. She was scared and lashed out, so she probably did kick the nurse as alleged but she didn’t mean to. She shoved the door, which may have caused the damage alleged, but she did not punch or kick it.

I go to ask the prosecutor to drop the common assault charge if she pleads guilty to criminal damage. The prosecutor refuses. I also speak to a probation officer. There are no spaces in any bail hostels.

At 4.30pm, we get into court. My client pleads guilty to both offences, on detailed written bases which outline her account of the incident. The judge orders a pre-sentence report, so her vulnerabilities will be properly considered.

Against every instinct, I have to ask the judge to remand her into custody, pending the report. Otherwise she will end up on the streets. Equally reluctantly, the judge agrees.

I leave court at 5.15pm, to head back to chambers to write up my attendance note.

Ten minutes later, I get an email from the solicitor in yesterday’s case, attaching an order from the High Court granting interim relief. The family will be sleeping in beds tonight. I phone my pupil supervisor to tell him. While I’m on the phone, another email comes through. It is the same solicitor, who has another case for me. This time, the mother and child are sofa-surfing, and will be kicked out on Thursday. She will send me the papers tomorrow, after emergency legal aid has been granted.
Mary-Rachel McCabe is a pupil barrister at Doughty Street Chambers @MaryRachel_McC




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