This (young legal aid) life: Tara Mulcair

My alarm goes off at 6:30. I’ve already planned my outfit for the day – I’m seeing clients and going to court so I’ve chosen something smart. I arrive at the office at 9:00 (after a 1 hour 15 minute commute on the overground, underground and bus), make some breakfast and check my emails to see whether any urgent work has come in overnight. It hasn’t, so I start preparing for a video link with a new client at 10:30. The client has been detained in prison under immigration powers for over a year, following the conclusion of a six-month sentence. He has been told that he will be deported but has no idea when. He was recently seriously assaulted by another prisoner and wants advice about a claim for damages.

I read through his letter, which is brief, and remind myself of the law. I then prepare an agenda for the meeting, including a set of questions to help me assess the merits of any claims he may bring. When the video link begins, the client seems very low. He explains that he has been detained in HMP Pentonville for 18 months and is frightened to return to his country of origin. The Home Office does not have a travel document for him and therefore cannot give him a timeframe for when he may be deported. He has however, recently been granted immigration bail and is waiting for the Home Office to approve his application for accommodation.

I take his full instructions in relation to the assault on him and his immigration detention. I explain the civil litigation process to him and the steps we will take. By the end of the video link, I feel that I’ve built a good rapport with him and he seems far more relaxed. I then discuss the case with my supervisor and we consider the potential causes of action and time limits.

It’s now 11:30. I am attending a pre-inquest review hearing at 2:00 with another solicitor in the department. I have an hour before we have to leave. I finalise and submit a legal aid application for another client and then have some lunch.

I read through our barrister’s submissions for the pre-inquest review hearing. I remind myself of the documents we are requesting from the other interested parties and the witnesses we want to call to give evidence at the inquest. We are representing the family of a man who was the victim of a random attack in a shop, who died leaving a young family. The perpetrator was on police bail and under the care of the community mental health team.

We submitted an application to the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) for exceptional case funding four months ago. Legal aid is not generally available for legal representation at inquests because the government considers them to be an inquisitorial, rather than an adversarial, process. However, in this case, as in many others, the state bodies involved in the inquest are legally represented at the expense of the taxpayer.

I call the LAA (again) to chase our application. I manage to find out the name of the caseworker who has been assigned our application and call him, but there is no answer. I leave a message explaining the delays and urgency and ask that he makes a decision as soon as possible.

We leave the office at 1:30 and meet the client, her family and our barrister at 2:00. We explain what the hearing will involve and take instructions. The hearing lasts for an hour and both of the other interested parties (the police and NHS trust) are legally represented. I sit behind the barrister with the client and my supervisor and take a note of the proceedings on my laptop.

One of the contested arguments is whether the inquest invokes Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights – the right to life. If it does, the state is required to carry out a thorough investigation and potentially make recommendations to the interested parties about how they can prevent future deaths. After hearing submissions from all three barristers, the coroner accepts our submission that Article 2 is engaged.

Our client is very tearful after the hearing; the process is very difficult. We reassure her that the inquest process should provide some answers about the events leading up to her husband’s death and ensure that changes are made to prevent another family going through what she and her family have gone through.

On the way back to the office, I call the caseworker at the LAA. This time I get through and explain that the coroner has accepted that the inquest engages Article 2 ECHR and therefore the family should be granted funding to allow them to effectively participate in the process. He asks me to put that in writing and assures me that a decision will be made in the next few days.

I arrive back at the office at 5:00 and draft an email to the LAA confirming the coroner’s decision. I summarise the arguments I made in the initial funding application and ask them to make a decision by close of business on Friday. I then correct the typos in my note of the hearing and circulate it to my supervisor and the barrister.

Shortly after, a client who recently won her unlawful detention claim against the Home Office, arrives to collect her damages. This claim went all the way to trial, which is quite rare. I attended the trial with my supervisor and our barrister and got to know the client well. She had been detained in an immigration detention centre for two years, in circumstances where her mental health had declined so dramatically that she had to be transferred to a psychiatric hospital. The judge found that her detention was unlawful and she was awarded substantial damages. She looks really well and is living independently in the community. It’s great to see her after such a good result at trial. She thanks us for helping her and says that she will keep in touch.

I leave the office at 6:00. A colleague is leaving at the same time so we walk to the station together. It’s been a long and heavy day, but seeing this client reminds me how worthwhile this area of work is.

About Tara

Tara Mulcair is a trainee solicitor at Birnberg Peirce

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