Alex Temple, 26, is a Justice First Fellow and trainee solicitor at the youth justice and children’s rights charity Just for Kids Law. He is due to qualify in February 2019. See other Justice First Fellows in the series here
Thousands of children are excluded from school every year, which has an enormous impact on their lives and makes them more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. Many are already vulnerable. Half of excluded children are eligible for free school meals; black Caribbean children and those with special educational needs are more likely to be excluded.
Little legal aid is available for education cases, so the majority of families are left to deal with an exclusion alone. The project that I am doing as part of my Justice First Fellowship is to produce a free online toolkit that guides parents through the process of challenging their child’s exclusion from school, enabling them to make submissions to the school’s governors or independent review panel.
I hope the toolkit will mean more children are given the chance to continue with their education.
The project element to the JFF scheme is indispensable. The Fellowship gives you so many of the skills that you will need to make a career as a legal aid lawyer sustainable.
While training part-time for the Legal Practice Course at the University of Law in Birmingham, I worked as a medical negligence paralegal at commercial law firm. That environment was extraordinarily different to where I am now, working at a charitable organisation. Most obviously, at a law firm, the need to make a profit changes everything: even where a client has a genuine case, there may not always be a commercial incentive to take the case, and so the case is not taken.
I respect the reality of for-profit organisations, but here in the not-for-profit sector, we are more at liberty to take cases, even without legal aid funding, just because it is the right thing to do.
During duller days at my previous firm, it was easy to become disillusioned. Here, where everyone has a real passion for what we’re doing, there is always an answer to the question: ‘Why am I doing this?’ Things can happen faster here. At my other firm, cases that I started in my first week were still going on when I left, two years later.
In my first week at Just for Kids Law, we had a call about a boy facing street homelessness that evening. We drafted an urgent letter to the local authority and by the evening of the same day we received a response, saying that the authority accepted its duty to house him. It is very satisfying and the cases are interesting.
The downside of being a legal aid lawyer is dealing with the Legal Aid Agency.
First and foremost, a legal aid lawyer needs to be personable – in order to break down barriers and gain the trust of vulnerable and distrustful clients, dispelling any perception that because we are paid by the state, we work for the state.
You need to be innovative, to find creative ways of getting things done with less money. And you need persistence and resilience to keep going when obstacles are put in your way: always having the client’s best interests at the forefront of your mind.
All these qualities were instilled in me by one of my professors at the University of Kent, Dr Stephen Pethick. He taught the ‘critical introduction to law’ course, showing me how to think and understand that, in many cases, there is no right or wrong answer, but that the important thing is to ensure that all the relevant facts are put before the decision-maker.
If you think you want to be a legal aid lawyer, and whenever someone gives you all the reasons not to work in the social justice sector and your answer is still: ‘I know, but I am still passionate about it’, then is it something you have to do.
Access to justice matters. Rights are empty unless you have the ability to enforce them.