Laura Williams - Life as a law centre trainee and qualifying as a legal aid solicitor
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I studied law at Nottingham Trent University and the Legal Practice Course at BPP Leeds. Following this I worked at Ealing Law Centre as a paralegal and then undertook my training contract at South West London Law Centres. I qualified as a Solicitor in July 2017 and have continued my career at the law centre as a legal aid solicitor practising in housing, community care and welfare benefits.
My experience as a law centre trainee proved to be a steep learning curve; I was treated as a fee earner from the start of my training contract, which involved me taking responsibility for cases, dealing with my own clients, attending court and constantly learning and developing while under supervision.
Highlights – access to justice
There were many highlights during my training contract and first year as a qualified solicitor, all of them being good outcomes for clients. In immigration I assisted a client with his asylum appeal. The client had been living in the UK for 11 years without claiming asylum. The client feared persecution in his home country due to his political opinion. After recently obtaining my level 2 Immigration and Asylum Accreditation Scheme qualification, I ran the appeal under supervision. I spent some late nights in the office drafting witness statements and obtaining a country expert report, and the hard work paid off as we won the appeal at the first-tier tribunal. The client and his family were subsequently granted refugee status.
In a housing client's case I had what started off as a relatively simple housing possession claim, however a few months into the case the client was arrested by the police for alleged antisocial behaviour and was subsequently sectioned under the Mental Health Act 1983. It was then established that the client was suffering from depression with psychotic symptoms. The opponent issued proceedings for an injunction to not allow the client to return to his property due to alleged antisocial behaviour. I assisted the client in defending the application. We also issued a counterclaim under the Equality Act 2010 and instructed a psychiatrist to prepare a report. The matter was eventually settled when the opponent agreed to move the client to a property in a different area and agreed to write off the client's rent arrears, which was the result the client had hoped for from the beginning of the case.
I also assisted a client with a community care case where the client, her husband and son had all lived together as a family in various properties since moving from Portugal to the United Kingdom in 1999. The client and her husband were 71 years old. The client's husband suffers from dementia, deafness, mobility problems, arthritis and depression, and the client also has mobility problems. Their son is aged 45 and has epilepsy and learning difficulties. The family were all living in one room of a shared house with 27 stairs to climb to the communal bathroom. The elderly couple had been forced to urinate, defecate and wash in buckets in their room as they were unable to climb the stairs to the bathroom. I obtained a community care assessment which confirmed that the accommodation was not suitable for their needs, and I made a homeless application to the council as it was not reasonable for the family to continue living in one room under these conditions. We requested temporary accommodation and initially the elderly couple were housed in a one-bed property without their son. Eventually, after threatening judicial review proceedings, the council agreed to provide them with a two-bedroom ground-floor property where their son could also live and care for them. However, the council subsequently informed us that they would only be providing permanent accommodation for the couple, not for the son. I sent legal representations to the council and eventually they agreed to provide the whole family with permanent accommodation.
Challenges of legal aid
Attending the Housing Court Duty Scheme (HCDS) as duty solicitor at Croydon and Wandsworth County Courts was by far the most challenging part of my training contract. The HCDS provides last-minute help to people facing eviction or repossession. Initially, I found advocacy to be extremely daunting and I did not enjoy it one bit. However, after a number of sessions of shadowing I was thrown in at the deep end, which I now realise was the best way to learn. My advocacy and negotiation skills improved rapidly through having an extremely short amount of time (five to 10 minutes) before each hearing to see a client; identify the key and important bits of information, negotiate with the opponent and formulate the arguments for the client’s defence. I have definitely learnt how to think on my feet!
Since qualifying as a solicitor I have been made the legal aid supervisor for the law centre’s Battersea office for housing and for welfare benefits upper tribunal work. Working within a relatively small organisation means that there are opportunities to take on a lot of responsibility very quickly and you can also get involved with other areas of charity work including fundraising.
Law centres are a sociable place to work, after training seminars everyone hits the pub or there are drinks and canapés when chambers are hosting. Additionally, I attended the Solicitor’s Journal Awards night when our housing team was shortlisted for housing team of the year 2016 and when our immigration team won legal aid team of the year 2017. These were great achievements for the law centre. I also attended the Law Centres Network two-day annual conference in Belfast. I attended a number of interesting seminars and it was great to spend two days with fellow law centre colleagues.
If you are interested in a career assisting the most vulnerable clients in society with complex legal problems and you like a challenge and being given responsibility, then working at a law centre is for you.