The skills you need to work in legal aid

Taking on the state can be frustrating but the ability to effect real change makes the fight worthwhile, argues Joanna Bennett.

Ever since I decided to pursue a career in law I knew that I wanted to do so in order to help individuals to hold public bodies accountable for their actions. So when I qualified in 2015, I focused on civil liberties and mental health law and last year joined the civil liberties team at Hodge Jones & Allen.

We undertake a wide range of work including representing families at inquests, bringing actions against public bodies such as the police, prisons and health service, pursuing miscarriage of justice cases and challenging decisions of public bodies by way of judicial review proceedings.

Legal aid funding plays a huge part in what we do and the reality is that without legal aid a substantial number of people we represent would not be able to pursue their cases. Access to justice should be a right for all and not for the privileged few and that is why legal aid is so important. It means we can stand up for those who are often the most vulnerable in society and ensure those wronged by the state have their voices heard.

A career in this area of law is extremely satisfying and there is nothing that I would rather do but it has to be recognised that there are considerable challenges to be faced and at times this can be frustrating. Not only are you battling against the state, which, in comparison to your legally aided clients, appears to have access to unlimited resources to fight these cases, you also spend a great deal of time trying to obtain funding for your client.

Once you have funding in place this is not the end of it as you need to make further applications at each step of your case in order to extend the scope of funding and justify your costs. Jumping through hoops for funding brings home the inequality of arms between you and the state.

In order to do this kind of work it’s important to keep in mind the positive outcomes you are hoping to achieve for your client, the potential for your work to result in policy changes or that you are working to overturn a decision which is so flawed that it should not be allowed to stand.

You need to have a good knowledge of the rules and regulations relating to legal aid funding, be clear on the merits of your case and be an effective and persuasive negotiator.

You also need good time management skills – if you spend too long on a given aspect of the case you are in danger of running up legal costs that the Legal Aid Agency deem unreasonable and will not pay.

To be successful you have to be resilient, keep your wits about you, but most of all you have to be passionate about what you are fighting for.

Working alongside some of the top human rights lawyers in the country, I have been lucky enough to see the difference passionate and dedicated lawyers can make. Over the years, lawyers in my team have time and again challenged the state and by doing so used the law to effect change.

Unarguably, legal aid has played a major role in that. For example, my colleague, Natalie Sedacca, represented a female remand prisoner in a successful judicial review of the Secretary of State’s decision to refuse her a place in the prison Mother and Baby Unit with her son, separating mother and child. If legal aid had not been available for the mother she would not have been able to bring the challenge and mother and child would have remained separated.

Access to justice is a right and not a privilege. It is imperative that the state is held to account for their actions and it simply would not be possible to do that without legal aid. As in all areas, hours can be long, it can be challenging, sometimes frustrating but in the end, it is always worth it.

Joanna Bennett is a civil liberties solicitor at Hodge Jones & Allen