Brooke Toon is Justice First Fellow and trainee solicitor at Central England Law Centre. She is due to qualify in February 2019. You can read other articles in the series here.
As a teenage parent I faced many situations that the law centre’s clients face. I was on benefits, homeless, and then went on to live in social housing. I experienced many abuses of power and studying law gave me confidence to stand up for myself.
I read a quote once that strong people stand up for themselves; even stronger people stand up for others. Being able to stand up for other people, some of whom are extremely vulnerable, makes me feel good.
When I started in my first seat, doing housing, I had a client who was sofa-surfing with her 19-year-old daughter. She had given up her business to care for her terminally ill mother and moved in with her mum and her mum’s partner. Shortly after her mum died, the partner asked her to leave – but she had nowhere to go. Her daughter was 19, so she didn’t automatically fit into a ‘priority need’ category, even though she was very ill, suffering physical and mental health issues, and having just undergone surgery. She and her daughter were walking the streets all day until they found somewhere to stay that night. The council refused her homelessness application, so she came to us for help. Drafting the submissions that she should be treated as a priority for housing was my first proper piece of work as a trainee.
The local authority overturned its decision and decided it owed her a ‘full housing duty’. When I called to tell her that she would be supported by the council and didn’t have to sofa surf anymore, she cried.
The best thing about being a legal aid lawyer is that you can change somebody’s life. These aren’t trivial decisions we’re fighting, Sometimes it’s the difference between having a roof over someone’s head or their being street homeless.
The worst thing is realising that this stuff happens all the time and unfortunately we can’t help everyone. Due to cuts in legal aid some people don’t even have a local law centre or anyone to help.
The three qualities a good legal aid lawyer should have are passion, determination and a sense of humour.
My legal hero is Canadian women’s rights activist Emily Murphy, who became the first female magistrate in the British Empire – in Canada in 1916. A defence lawyer challenged her first guilty verdict, because she was a woman and therefore not recognised by the law as a ‘legal person’. Later she and four others, who became known as the Famous Five, challenged the fact that women could not sit on the Senate. The Canadian Supreme Court ruled that women were not eligible, a decision overturned by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain in 1929. Although she died without having served in the Senate, this was a landmark ruling that paved the way for women to enter government and helped to change society’s attitudes to women in many other professions.
I think sometimes being a female lawyer, particularly as a young parent, I experience a bit of imposter syndrome. So to imagine the courage it would have taken Emily Murphy back then to challenge not only the law, but society’s view of women is inspiring.
Access to justice matters because without it the rule of law is just a concept. What good is it having laws that protect people rights if they have no way of enforcing them?
The Justice First Fellowship scheme not only increases the opportunities for people to practice in this much-needed area, but also offers training outside of your training contract. This includes workshops on dealing with the press and finding funding from alternative sources, which is vital with so many cuts to legal aid. The scheme gives you the tools to be able to create a successful and sustainable career and allows you to feel like you’re a part of a bigger social movement and a family.
My Fellowship project was to start a housing advice service from our office in Birmingham. We have now hired our first housing team employee and plan to hire another after a successful legal aid contract bid. The next stage will involve increasing awareness of the service, and continuing working with partner organisations to generate referrals and ensure the sustainability of the project.
To anyone looking to be a legal aid lawyer, I’d say it will be the most rewarding thing you do. The service we provide is hugely underrated and can be stressful, but when you go home at night knowing you’ve changed someone’s life for the better, very little compares.