Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Uncertain Times for Legal Aid Lawyers

Legal aid is about justice. Justice for all; not only for those who can afford to pay privately for the best lawyers in the business.

Law firms that provide legal assistance to clients who qualify for legal aid are staffed by people who value justice more than money -- legal aid work never paid anywhere near as well as commercial or private client work. But just like all hard-working taxpayers, those who dedicate their lives to seeking justice for those not wealthy enough to afford it on their own still need jobs, somewhere to live, clothes on their backs and food on their tables.

After a decade of continued cuts to legal aid, the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, has decided that the time is right to make still further cuts to criminal legal aid. Mr Grayling intends to cut the rates of criminal solicitors by another 17.5%. Cuts to legal aid have already been putting law firms out of business and average people out of work, while those seeking legal help end up getting poorer representation from unqualified representatives.

This is the experience of one of Wainwright & Cummins’ criminal legal aid solicitors -Clea Topolski - who got into legal aid work for all the right reasons, but finds herself questioning whether her family can withstand another cut so that she can continue to stand up for people who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer.


Uncertain Times

In September 2003, I was a placement paralegal/outdoor clerk at one of the top-ranked Legal 500 firms. I remember sitting in the principal partner’s office and sweating as he poured over my first piece of “legal drafting”. I had 6 months to prove my worth, in the hope that when I finally came to look for that coveted training contract, he would recognise my name amidst the hundreds of CVs that came through his letterbox.

I sat there as his red pen decorated the page, and remembered those dreaded maths lessons that always tied me up in knots with anxiety. He looked over his glasses at me and said “the trouble with you Clea, is you still write like an arty farty drama student”. He then sat me down and made me watch him re-draft the whole document by dictation. I was in awe. Here was this man who had a top legal aid defence practice, giving me a one on one tutorial on how it is done. He was the same partner who point blank refused to keep me on when it came down to a choice between Law School and staying on another year. I went to his office, frightened about not having enough money to live on. He told me:

“go and do your course, and live on baked beans for two years Clea. The profession is waiting for you to qualify.”

This encouragement of my future career in law was exactly the push I needed to propel me back into full time education, and indeed a life of baked beans for two years. Not least returning to my old bedroom in my parents’ house for the duration.

It was a different time then. I had no doubt in my mind that once I had completed my education and vocational training, that myself and my now husband would be set for life. I remember us having the conversation with our mortgage broker as a trainee solicitor (earning nothing) that owing to the profession I was soon to join, my partner and I could expect a salary multiplier that would take my salary and times it by four.

Fast forward to 2013/14 and life could not be more different if you tried. The future of our profession hangs on the bravery of a few, taking dramatic, unparallelled steps to cull aspects of the firms practice with a view to saving the profession as a whole. For the first time ever, Wainwright & Cummins (along with many others) will be turning away publicly funded Crown Court work to try and gain the attention of the minister who threatens the profession.

In some of my darker moments, I want to turn round to the sprightly, bushy-tailed 20-something me, at the beginning in 2003. I want to tell her how different the landscape would be in just ten short years I want to explain, that yes her heart may be in public defence, but that the chosen career will keep her up at night considering each year, whether this is to be the last.

Every time I stand up in Court or help someone in a police station, I now relish the moment. I am uncertain whether my most cherished career is to stand the test of this government. What I am certain of, is that I will never be able to replicate the level of dedication that I, and my colleagues, have for the job. You don’t come across such challenging and rewarding work, with like minded individuals twice in a lifetime. I don’t regret the last ten years by any means. I just hope that they have not all been in vain. 

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