Sami Halpern, 27, is a Justice First Fellow and trainee solicitor at Islington Law Centre. See other Justice First Fellows in the series here.
I’ve only ever been interested in social welfare and equality law, civil liberties and human rights. The fellowship scheme provides everything you could possibly want (and more) to forge a career in these areas. What’s not to love?
The JFF programme is fantastically supportive in so many different ways, but particularly useful is the network of contacts.
My JFF project aims to assert the rights of the transgender, non-binary and non-gender people, of which there is an estimated 650,000 in the UK. They undoubtedly represent some of the most marginalised in society, as transphobia, hate crime and discrimination are an everyday part of their life. My plan is to deliver a drop-in service, offering housing, employment and discrimination advice in a safe and non-judgemental environment. I will be working closely with LGBT organisations, mental health charities and the NHS.
The worst thing about being a legal aid lawyer is the lack of recognition that publicly funded law is as important to our nation as a free health service. Also, the continual threat of cuts, and being tarnished with the ‘fat cat’ lawyer brush – a myth, perpetuated by elements of the media and certain politicians. It would be funny if it were not so dangerous.
The best thing is improving the lives of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of society by obtaining legal redress. As a legal aid lawyer, I use the law as an instrument to tackle injustice, discrimination, inequality and unfairness.
A good legal aid lawyer needs empathy, strength and grittiness. Empathy to understand someone else’s situation and help them obtain the best outcome. Strength because it is sometimes hard to hear client’s stories without wanting to well up. And grittiness because determination is key: it’s not always a dodgy decision you are fighting, sometimes it’s a dodgy law or policy, or the system as a whole.
A stand out case involved a homeless 18 year old, who was completely alone and as vulnerable an individual as you could possibly imagine. He had chronic, life-threatening medical conditions and severe mobility issues. He was being forced out of his family home. and had two days to find alternative accommodation. He had no support from social services and the local authority refused his application for homelessness assistance on grounds of his nationality. He made an appointment at the law centre, but didn’t show up. Then, we learned he was lost, a short distance from our office. We ran to find him, and he was a few streets away, cold, distressed and unable to communicate effectively.
We made an urgent fresh application for homelessness assistance. I went with him to submit it to the housing office. Within one week, the local authority accepted its legal duty towards him.
To anyone thinking of becoming a legal aid lawyer, I’d say ‘Go for it!’ People will try to put you off, but if you are passionate about it, pursue it. Try not to compare yourself to your lawyer peers. Opportunities are harder to come by in this area of practice, so it may be a longer road to qualification for you than it was for them.
Access to justice means everybody can rely on protection from the law, irrespective of their background and income. You can pass all the good laws in the world but they are not worth the paper they are written on if there is no access to justice.