After qualifying in 2013, I was fully committed to pursuing a career as a legal aid lawyer. It just so happened that this coincided with the arrival of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) and with it planned cuts to the legal aid budget of £350m.
Not great timing you might you think if, like me, you’re absolutely committed to upholding the rule of law and ensuring everyone in society has access to justice. But that’s the point. You don’t go into legal aid work for the money, or for the glory. You do it because at your core you have an unwavering commitment to the rule of law and access to justice.
Your law school peers will earn three or four times more than you but then I am pleased to report that I’m not usually still in the office at 9pm like some of my peers and I get the most tremendous amounts of satisfaction out of my work for making a tangible difference to people’s lives.
I specialise in housing and advise on homelessness reviews and appeals, judicial reviews, possession proceedings and disrepair claims. My work can be the difference between someone having a roof over their head or not. My caseload is still around half legal aid and the rest Conditional Fee Agreement (CFA) work.
It might sound obvious, but your choice of firm is really important if you’re committed to legal aid. Many high-street practices that have only ever carried out legal work are closing or struggling to find profitable routes to market because of government cuts.
I am fortunate in that the founding ethos of the firm I work in – using the law to help improve people’s lives – is as strong today as it was when it was founded almost 40 years ago. While the firm undertakes fewer legally aided cases now than five years ago, it is still deeply committed to the work, successfully rebalancing its caseload with a mixture of work funded by CFAs and private clients, as well as legal aid.
As a trainee, I was privileged to work alongside my colleague, and one of the UK’s leading human rights lawyers, Jocelyn Cockburn, when she successful argued to the Supreme Court that British Troops remain within the UK’s jurisdiction when deployed on active service abroad, and so are protected by the Human Rights Act. Decisions like this, won through legal aid, have the ability to impact thousands.
That’s the point about legal aid. It gives you the scope to pursue interesting and novel points of law in a way where you couldn’t under a CFA and privately-funded cases because of the risk involved.
Yet, as well as the pay, you will have to contend with the frustrations too. The limited scope for legal aid eligibility being one, where your only choice, assuming a CFA isn’t an option, is to act pro bono for a client or send them to a law centre. Plus, the Legal Aid Agency’s Client and Cost Management System has not delivered on the multi-million-pound investment it received and remains fraught with problems, not least the amount of administration still required and massive processing delays.
Despite that, it’s still a hugely rewarding career choice and one I would recommend. If you’re not sure and have concerns, then immerse yourself in the world of a legal aid lawyer so you’re fully aware of the challenges ahead. There are plenty of voluntary opportunities to see legal aid work in action, not least at law centres.
Perseverance is also key. Opportunities will be few and far between but you shouldn’t be considering a career in legal aid if you can’t take a few knock backs.
Ed Veale is a solicitor at Hodge Jones & Allen.