Alex Lowry, 25, is a Justice First Fellow at RCJ Advice in central London. She qualified as a solicitor in 2018.
The best thing about being a legal aid lawyer is helping people who are in genuine need and seeing the change it makes in their lives. The worst thing is seeing panicked and stressed clients who have been trying to navigate the difficult system by themselves.
For this work, you need patience. It can be quite fraught dealing with anxious clients who tell you their whole story from start to finish, while you work out their legal issues. You also need compassion, to realise that sometimes people just need time to talk, and good communication skills, to tell clients the law in ways they understand.
For my Justice First Fellowship project, I set up a consultancy service for the domestic violence charity Refuge. I delivered legal advice and representation to women that Refuge helped, who would not otherwise have been able to access legal advice, not because the law can’t help them but because the cost of legal advice was beyond their reach. I set up a dedicated phone number and email address, so I could be contacted direct if refuges had a client needing urgent help.
Through this work, it was apparent that Refuge’s front-line workers were offering women amazing support, but they had problems accessing legal advice for the women that they were helping. We realised that empowering the front-line workers with basic legal knowledge would enable them to identify where legal advice could help. They were then able to refer women to RCJ advice, so that I could help women obtain emergency orders when they could not access legal aid. I went to refuges to meet the women, or they could come to me. I was also able represent them in court.
After seeing that the project was offering invaluable support, RCJ Advice teamed up with Rights of Women to make an application to the government’s Tampon Tax Fund, which was set up with money from VAT on sanitary products, to support projects that improve the lives of disadvantaged women and girls. We secured a £1.1m grant, which led to the development of FLOWS – Finding Legal Options for Women Survivors.
FLOWS addresses a significant gap in the availability of legal resources for front-line professionals. Our aim is to assist front-line staff and women who are in refuges, plus women’s aid groups, and organisations that provide safe environments for them to disclose abuse: for example, local Citizens Advice services, law clinics, and court-based services, such as Personal Support Unit.
FLOWS offers advice by phone and email, and an online discussion forum for front-line workers. RCJ Advice has developed a tool to guide refuge workers through the process of completing online applications for injunctions, such as non-molestation orders. This draws on our successful CourtNav online divorce petition module.
We are developing a network of accredited domestic abuse solicitors who will check the completed forms and, if a woman is eligible for legal aid, provide legal advice and representation. RCJ Advice has been awarded a family legal aid contract; and the FLOWS team can help women who aren’t eligible for legal aid.
We are also tackling advice desserts. FLOWS has funded a solicitor in Newcastle, and another will soon be appointed in Brighton. There is quite a lot going on, but it is a very exciting time for us.
One client who stands out for me was a young woman, referred to me by Refuge, who was experiencing constant harassment. She had two young children and was unable to obtain support. Thankfully, I was able to assist her in obtaining a non-molestation order. When I first met her she was anxious, scared and confused. However, once we had obtained the protective injunction you could see the weight lift from her shoulders. She told me that she could finally put all her energy back into raising her children and enjoy being a mother again.
My fictional legal hero is Elle Woods from the film Legally Blonde. She is strong, independent and ambitious – and she is an inspiration. When I watched the film, I thought ‘If she can do it, so can I.’
My advice to anyone thinking of becoming a legal aid lawyer is to work hard and don’t give up. Along the way you will face challenges, but going home after a day’s work and knowing that you have helped to make a positive change in somebody’s life is incredibly rewarding.
Access to justice allows people to be heard and treated fairly, regardless of their background.
The JFF scheme is a unique experience. You get great support and practical training, not just in the law, but with fundraising and project-management, that helps you become a well-rounded solicitor. You also get lots of support from your peers who are doing the journey with you.