Those of you who care (all two of you) and have been paying attention (probably less than 0.5 of you) will probably have noted that I've not been noding too much recently. Or at least not at the pace I have been in the past. That is because I've been looking for, and have recently started, a new job. And better still, it isn't in legal aid. It's general, private, and commercial civil litigation. It's excellent. Every client a new adventure, and I've learnt more about civil litigation in the past few weeks than I did in years.
But hold on, Hazelnut, you're about to say, I thought you enjoyed sticking up for the underprivileged and unfortunate and oppressed?
Well, it's a bit more complicated than that.
It had its amusing moments and its alarming moments, I'll give it that. But most of the time, especially later on, quite frankly, it sucked. You see, the legally aided end of the profession sells itself as people who, to use a highly sickly phrase, put people before profit. The idea that they'll accept a shite wage for the warm, fuzzy glow of doing the right thing. Problem is, we all gotta eat, and in London where one pays vast sums to rent a shoebox of a flat, this is problematic unless you have Rich Parents (I don't) or a better half in a well paid job (likewise). But the terminally rubbish pay is not even the biggest reason why I decided that Legal Aid wasn't for me.
I signed up to get into law because it seemed interesting. I was rather good at it as well, or at least good enough to get a 2.1 in it. I signed up for litigation specifically because I wanted to be able to dig up arguments and things like that rather than the utterly dull clause-wrangling that is corporate law, conveyancing, banking and finance, company/commercial, and similar non-contentious stuff. Quite frankly I don't know how your average conveyancer or securities jockey can muster up the effort to get out of bed given the repetitive and anal bollox that awaits them at work. But litigation? OHYEAHHHHH. You get to argue the toss, write snotty letters to the opposition, notice that they've made the first letter in each paragraph of their response spell a nasty insult about my mother, draft pleadings, engage in mental bare-knuckle boxing with City Boys, develop arguments as to why the opposition are wrong, and similar. So, out of law college, I applied for a job which was aimed at same and got it. It was doing legally aided housing work. It was quite amusing. Every client a new adventure. I headed into another job after that, did my training contract, was unexpectedly kept on, and suchlike.
Then 2013 happened.
2013 was a bit of a horrible anus as far as Legal Aid was concerned, both in general and for me personally. In general, the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 came into force. The result of which was to increasingly bureaucratise the entire sector, even more so than before, to such a point at which every new inquiry from a new (or even returning) client became a colossal ballsache. In fact, the increase in bureaucratic idiocy was the first reason why I decided to get out of Legal Aid.
1. The Administrivia
I'll give you an example.
So, I had this client who was self employed. As a taxi driver if you must know. He has a case he wants me to defend. The hearing is the next week. He doesn't have much money - business is so lax he would be better off on the dole right now. Should be easy to get him legal aid, right?
Don't be ridiculous.
Firstly, you have to fill out a 14-page form, called "CIV APP1," where you are asked all manner of stuff about your client and his case and expected to "justify" why they are worthy of funding. The questions are designed deliberately to trip you up and make you give reasons why he can't be funded. You also have to explain what steps you're planning to work up until to achieve the objective. Your answer must be one of around 140 or so "wording codes" setting out the stage to which you want to take the case. The list of this can be found on the LAA website, if you must know. However, they don't advertise it very well and you have to buy a large and expensive manual which amongst other things contains this list of magic words. They also don't tell you when the different wording codes are altered or withdrawn or changed and sometimes their own staff don't know all of them. Also certain wording codes are slightly discouraged (i.e. they're the ones that are useful because they're nicely open ended) and often refused with no reason given or just accidentally-on-purpose not transcribed onto your funding certificate. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. For Taxi Driver Man, I had to fill out 14 pages of this futile exercise, then do a 20-page "CIV MEANS1" form to explain how he's eligible. To be eligible, you have to have a monthly income of £733.00 or less after taking into account tax, National Insurance, rent, and standard allowances prescribed by the LAA for children (to a maximum of four). This is proven by filling out this form and attaching original copies (not photocopies) of bank statements, wage slips, all benefits received, documentary evidence of any support from family, and so forth. Then, because he was self employed, I had to give him a 7-page "CIV MEANS1A" form and get him to take it to an accountant to fill out, and attach his tax returns for the past two years. Then, after all this utter bollox, I could start work on the case.
On the plus side, we could start immediately if we believed they were financially eligible and in scope.
Actually, let's talk about the scope rules for a second, hm? Okay. So, in my area of legally aided practice (housing), one could represent on possession proceedings for rented properties, homelessness cases, and debt cases where there was a risk of homelessness. That was it. Disrepair was out unless brought as a counterclaim to a claim for arrears of rent (ah, but no so fast, bucko! The regulations stated that if the client "provoked" the landlord by withholding rent to bring a counterclaim to any rent arrears possession proceedings, funding should be refused) or if it was life threatening (which required medical evidence - which we didn't get paid for obtaining, natch). Illegal eviction was in but only just. Mortgage possessions were not in, so if you've lost your job and are on the property ladder, well, tough luck. Actually, that's not strictly true. You could get legal aid for mortgage repossessions, but only 4 cases a year and you had to go through more daftness to get a secret code so to do, and the clueless Geordie woman on the other end of the phone often didn't know what you were on about when you asked for it and even when you cited their own guidance at them.
Yeah. But you're not out the woods yet. Why do you think the LAA requested all these disparate pieces of paper? Well, once they'd been thrown into a big pile in a basement in Jarrow and sat on for a few weeks, they'd go through each item line by line and 99% of the time request further information. Usually "what's this charge on the bank statement here?" or "why have you taken into account the deductions from her earnings marked reduction for sick leave." They were truly anal about this. About a year and a bit ago I had a client asked to explain and "justify" her mother giving her six pounds on Christmas Eve. I was tempted to write back with something facetious but I didn't. You don't bite the hand that feeds, even if it belongs to someone both incompetent and evil. I did say that it was a pointless query because whether it was counted as income or not, it was a one off payment and would not have got her over the threshold for eligibility by itself. They also always want this information in a tearing hurry, failing which, funding is suspended until such time as it's received - and they're mighty slow to life the suspension. I suppose it's the double standard that really got to me the most. When they want something, they want it NOW, but when they owed us something they made us scrape and bow and tug our forelocks. Then they'd deliberately misinterpret the rules, on occasion, in order to annoy us or throw yet more obstacles in our path.
There's another steaming helping of bureauspunk at the end of the case as well. You present them with your bill and your entire file (assuming it's under £2,500.00 that you're claiming - over that figure and it goes to the Court for taxation. For reasons that will become apparent, namely that District Judges are generally not deliberately vindictive, we always used to try and flesh out our bills over this sum where possible.) to the Legal Aid Agency. They then go through it and slash it down massively. Basically, if you put effort in, then your bill will be slashed for "carrying out works disproportionate to the case." As if they only will pay for you to do a half job. Besides, those allegedly "disproportionate" efforts could have been the thing that saved the client's bacon. Often they were. How many homes have been saved, deportations averted, iffy debts written off, instances of street homelessness avoided, and so forth because a Legal Aid practitioner carried out "disproportionate" work. I shudder to think. However, these reductions and suchlike are only applied to solicitors' fees. Barristers get their fees waved right through. Because they're learned counsel. Yes. The wet-behind-the-ears pupil barrister who gets retained to do an interim application because everyone in the firm has stuff on that day gets his full fees no questions asked, even if he totally blows it. While if someone within the firm had been available to go down to Court for the same application (and done it properly), we'd have had to "justify" everything and all that jazz. Counsel even gets 2/3 of their fees paid up front, no questions asked, before we've even billed the file. All of which come out of our financial limitation on the Legal Aid certificate.
Now, what do you think learned counsel do with this? If you're thinking, "they inflate their fees massively," then you're spot on. Last year I engaged a barrister to do a trial. Which settled two days before opening. Despite this, she still managed to charge over £2,000.00 in "preparation time" even though she'd already seen the papers in advance of a conference with the client two months beforehand. Which she also charged "preparation time" for reading up on beforehand. Then another barrister tried to charge £7,000.00 for a two day trial, which would have resulted in us, who did all the legwork for same, getting bugger all, because the certificate's cost limitation is supposed to cover EVERYTHING.
Anyhow. Back to the bureaucracy. It's not just the LAA that are a bunch of obstructive little hitlers. There's other public bodies, all of which have a big thing about DATA PROTECTION. Or, as I called it, DATA PREVENTION. I think an illustrative story is necessary here.
For better or worse, I have to get information from a Council over a client's Housing Benefit payments on the premises she's been evicted from so I can convince that same Council's homeless persons unit that she may, in fact, not be intentionally homeless. Her name, for the same of argument, is Mrs Smith. So, I ring them up and speak not to a person from the Council itself, but a telephone monkey miles away in Glasgow. He not only does this Council's housing benefit enquiries but ten other boroughs, all on one ginormous computer system. I introduce myself and ask about this particular client and to see if I can get this information.
"I'm afraid, Hazelnut," he says, "you need to provide authorisation from your client before I can tell you this." Fair enough. This is normal. So I put the client on the phone and get her to go through security and after she's shouted her credentials up the receiver the phone returns to me.
"I'm sorry, Hazelnut, but her authorisation is not valid."
"She isn't the named claimant of benefit. Her husband is the sole claimant over this matter."
This is true, it seems. But her husband, about five weeks ago, buggered off for Belgium and left her with five kids and a metric fuckton of debt. Anyhow, she says, she used to be able to go physically in to the office and they'd speak to her without her husband. I duly relay this to man on phone.
"I'm sorry sir but for data protection reasons we require authorisation from the claimant in person to discuss this with third parties."
"Even though she was married to him, and he's gone and the payments are over premises she's been occupying and this relates to her housing situation."
"But you can tell her, right?"
"Yes, I can."
"But not me, even though she's happy for this to be divulged."
"Even though this is information that concerns her, you cannot tell the solicitor who you have, by your own admission, confirmed is assisting her with this."
"Sorry, I don't make the rules."
I can believe this. It's more than his job's worth to go otherwise because all calls are monitored for training or security purposes and he could get fired if he breaches data protection.
"Right, I'm going to write out a load of questions and then get Mrs Smith to ask them." I do so and pass the phone over to her, and then "accidentally" bung it on to speakerphone.
I get the information I need but in all this galactic-level stupidity I look at the clock and note that I have wasted thirty minutes on useless, administrative busywork and pettifogging attention to mindless procedure which was circumvented anyhow and thus a total non-issue. That's thirty minutes of my life I'll never get back. In those thirty minutes I could have:
- finished advising Mrs Smith as to the merits of her case, thus preventing all my other clients from that day running late.
- drafted and agreed with the opponent the directions (procedural timetable) to bring another case to trial.
- done some quick research on a tricksy little legal point regarding tenancy deposits.
- sorted out my filing for the week.
- listened to Slayer's album "Reign in Blood" from beginning to end.
- swum 50 lengths.
- snuck off to the stationery cupboard for a quickie with one of the secretaries.
But no, I had to waste this time arguing with some obstructive tossbag who wasted everyone's time by insisting on enforcing data protection regulations to the letter for no real purpose. Sometimes I can't help but feel the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
I would go on, but I'd probably have a screaming fit.
I think it's time I went on to the next reason I got out of Legal Aid.
2. The People Who Work In It
Legal aid lawyers are, by and large, not likely to vote Tory. This is pretty obvious and in all fairness doesn't disqualify them from being socially acceptable people in any way. It comes with the territory. Sir Bufton Tufton, bankers, business folk, and Hooray Henries don't generally care too much for the lower orders and only really interact with them when they absolutely must. Hence a lack of them getting into Legal Aid. But that's okay. I'm hardly the sons and daughters of gentlefolk myself. I'm a fat bloke from the North. However, the sort of people who do get into Legal Aid are those who know that there's better paying (see below) legal jobs out there, yet voluntarily give up their chance at mega zlotys to act for The Good Guys. Yes, that's right. There's a disproportionate number of Social Justice Warriors in it.
Okay, maybe that term is a little loaded and in the space year 2014 it tends to refer to brainless early 20s types on Tumblr who beat the crap out their little learning and describe anything they dislike as "problematic" and try to find ever more convoluted ways to describe their sexuality. No, the sorts of people who end up in Legal Aid are, by and large, the denizens of the Occupy movement. I've been to gatherings of them. It's slightly alarming. They spend a disproportionate amount of time grumbling about the Good Old Days when Legal Aid wasn't hated by the general public (so, the 1980s) and spouting ill-informed talking points from the Guardian or, worse, the Huffington Post, often with little to no understanding of how real life is not a series of talking points. I've seen at least two "Atomkraft? Nein danke" badges and quite a lot of Stop the War Coalition paraphernalia. (My node on Stopper Baiting will follow shortly.) They'll occasionally go on protests as well. But the narrative isn't so much, "I believe this" as "I want you to know that I look like I believe this." Especially amongst the barristers. Then there's the
Socialist Rapists Party Socialist Workers Party contingent as well.
Really? I don't care about your beliefs, matey, I just want to know if you can argue a case at trial persuasively.
They spout a lot about "the vulnerable in society" as well. During the 2011 London Riots a significant minority of them nodded sagely when presented with talking points from the New Statesman thinkpieces that Montag referred to in his writeup on same. About how the rioters were the real victims and suchlike, and how we could expect to see more crime, rioting, pack-rape, and anti-social behaviour as a result of the government of David Cameron and how it would be his, personal, fault for same. To this day I wonder how quickly my career would have been over had I chipped in with a comment along the lines of "More work for us then. Trebles all round?"
No, that's not me making an inappropriate joke. That's a real hypocrisy that I witnessed at the heart of the Legally Aided sector of the profession. Many people within it cockwave about how they're combatting austerity, deprivation, interlocking systems of oppression, and suchlike, yet they refuse to acknowledge that their living is made as a result of blood and stupidity. If the vulnerable in society were adequately looked after, treated fairly, and so forth, that is, if the stated objective of the Legally Aided profession were to come to pass, then they'd all be out of a job. Thankfully for them, there's always a bottomless wellspring of human malice, incompetence, idiocy, and venality that means that from time to time, the Little People are going to get shafted harder than the victims of Bob Glover in Preacher. There's also a rather puritanical and, dare I say it, condescending streak in the legally aided legal profession as well. That they Know Better and are Just Better than the people they represent. Granted, I'll give them the Know Better insofar as they are there to advise the general public of their rights, but not in other spheres. During gatherings, Chambers dos, firm dinners, my views on things such as minimum alcohol pricing (I disapprove), compulsory Internet filtering (I disapprove), benefit sanctions (I'm not opposed in principle but I think it should be better implemented), none of which are particularly extreme views, were looked on with some suspicion. Like they'd found the sexist death merchant in their midst. They were the sorts of people who, in short, believed that the lower orders would, without the beneficence of celebrating diversity and anti-racism initiatives and suchlike would devolve into gibbering, racist, sexist, homophobic, drunken, chain-smoking morons. Although it was more condescent than disdain, they appreciated a good forelock-tug as much as a bilious retired colonel.
Of course, this is not to say that they didn't know what they were about. They did. I have in mind one very senior (but non-QC) barrister here who, if I were homeless, and the local authority were being sillybuggers, I'd want nobody else to represent me, but I wouldn't invite her to the celebratory dinner party after I'd been rehoused.
Tl;dr to the above segment - I found that your approval rating within the legally aided legal profession is not so much based upon whether you're any good so much as whether you're the right sort of champagne socialist type. Of course, you can't be an incompetent mantra-spouter (that is how you advance in politics), but it is not enough to be merely competent. You must be competent and One Of Us. And most of all, unpolluted by not having represented The Forces Of Iniquity (landlords, Councils, government departments, etc.)
But then again, it could be worse. I could have to spend my time around City Boys. I ran into some people at university who wanted to get jobs in the City and they thought they'd get into training. Between them, they probably hoovered up more cocaine than the entirety of Fleetwood Mac during the whole of the 1970s. I mean, I'm sure they had crossflow nostrils by the end of the year.
3. Awful Pay
Don't believe everything you read about Legal Aid solicitors trousering massive sums of public money bringing frivolous claims by crims and dole bludgers. It's 90% false. The pay is terrible. Often such frothing editorials in the gutter press (which the Daily Mail described in 2001 as "a shabby display of legal vulturism") tend to conflate Legal Aid with conditional fee agreements ("no win, no fee") and/or conflate the small number of named folks at the very top of the profession, i.e. senior partners of 25 years qualification, top QCs, and suchlike, with the vast array of underlings that make the wheels of social justice grind onwards inexorably. Often these top ranked folks have multiple income streams and representing clients is only a part of their income. Many of then have written books which are often very highly regarded within the legal profession as a whole for their discussions of the relevant law, regularly contribute to academic and professional journals, and perform training sessions for the remainder of the legal profession, all of which supplement their income.
Those of us at the bottom of the heap get it in the shorts. When I was a trainee in a Legal Aid firm, I was paid only just over the bare minimum that the Law Society lets firms get away with. And it wasn't as if I was a totally inexperienced person, nor was it as if I was not given any real responsibility. I was given the look round the office, then sat down and told, "Those five drawers there? There's a bunch of cases in them. They are now yours to conduct. Good luck." Pretty much. It was not easy at first but I got to grips with it. However, in other sectors of the profession I would have commanded a far better salary for the same level of responsibility.
I was able to survive by renting a miniscule shoebox of a flat and not spending money unless absolutely necessary. Even after I qualified, though, my wage on qualification was less than certain other jobs I could have got into without the massive debt of university, law college, and suchlike, by the same stage. Actually, let's put a figure on that. The average salary of newly-qualified legal aid solicitors is less than that of sewage plant managers. Yes. That's right. I could have left school at 16 and got a job mining fatbergs out of London's sewers for more money.
Now, why do you think this is? Well, there's two factors, or so I see it. Firstly, the Legal Aid Agency pays utter penury rates. Legal Aid rates currently stand at £63.00 per hour plus VAT. This is a drop from £70.00 per hour plus VAT in 2010. That sounds like a lot until you factor in that out of that, the firm has to pay tax, rents on its premises, business rates to the local Council, professional indemnity insurance, overheads, wages for staff, practicing certificates, Continuing Professional Development, employers' National Insurance contributions, IT support, coffee, tea, Sainsbury's Belgian Chocolate Cake, team-building drinks up the local boozer, Guardian subscriptions, and everything else. A private or commercial firm... well, let's just say in my new job my billing rate is £220.00 per hour plus VAT. The only ray of light for the Legal Aid wallah as they fight the good fight is that if they get their costs from the opposition upon winning a case, they can charge market rates. However this is not always guaranteed and when I was in Legal Aid, we often used to try and grab the cases that we could get our costs on for that reason.
But wait! If this is so, you're thinking, how come your old boss lived in a very posh part of London and drove a Mercedes?
Because it wasn't always this way. It used to be you could sign anyone up and the Legal Aid Board (as they then were) would rubber stamp it unless it was manifestly extracting the urine. Then a bunch of Scousers wrecked it by engaging in a massive fraud where they literally went through the phone book and signed up everyone without ever seeing them, faking signatures and making up fictitious cases before stamping up a few hours on each and then billing it. They trousered millions of pounds before being found out, nicked, and sent to prison. And rightly so. But this caused the LAB to go all paranoid and started the trend for increased bureaucratic nonsense as set out above.
Most of the top people in Legal Aid either have multiple income streams, as stated above, or got in before the Access to Justice Act 1999 and made out like bandits.
However, those of us who got in AFTER that, or worse, after LASPO (the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012), got it in the bollocks. A colleague of mine in my old job said she'd not had a pay rise in the last five years. This was the exact moment where I thought, right, fuck this for a game of soldiers. Huzzah, he's off now, goodbye.
Not that this was easy - it took 10 interviews and untold applications before I found a new litigation job. The feedback was consistently the same, that they thought I was very knowledgeable, was clearly technically competent, and presented myself well, but I didn't have a commercial enough background for their liking. It was almost as if just the sniff of Legal Aid is considered an irretrievable black mark on one's career. Probably because they thought I was too much of a Social Justice Warrior for their liking (one firm asked me that given they represented housing associations, would I feel like some sort of class traitor. Go figure.)
But then, in many ways, this was only the culmination in a series of similar moments where I'd toyed with getting my arse out of there...
4. The Clients
Here's a dirty little secret that the many august bodies of Legal Aid lawyers, the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, YLAL, the Love Legal Aid campaign, and suchlike don't want you to know.
There's a very large grain of truth in the whole "bailing out crims and dole bludgers" stereotype.
Okay, it's a bit more complicated than that. Let's be honest here. (I bet if this writeup goes viral I'll have that above line taken out of context so the above-mentioned bodies can harrumph and shift and righteously indignate over it.) However. It is true to say that there is such a grain of truth.
You see, whenever legal aid lawyers blog, or are gathered together, they tend to make the biggest song and dance about hard luck stories they've witnessed. The man who was street homeless with only one leg and who had served with honour in Afghanistan until an IED left him minus a limb and he was thrown on the mercy of an uncaring bureaucratic machine. If I had represented such a person, I'd brag about at every gathering of my fellow Legal Aid wallahs until they got bored of hearing it and I wasn't invited again. Or the woman who'd spent her entire life from 1996 to 2011 homeless and turning to street prostitution to fund her colossal heroin habit in between stretches in prison and whose massive efforts to improve her lot in life the local council saw fit to try every last thing to derail in a fit of utter shamelessness by them. (I did actually represent her, by the way). Or the countless times that I kept tenants in arrears as a result of Housing Benefit dropping many bollocks in their homes until their benefits were sorted out. Or the man who'd worked all his life to buy a home, and then was made redundant from his job and was immediately threatened with repossession, and how I kept the lupine banks away from his door. I'd brag about all these. Because they all fit the narrative of ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations through no fault of their own. Which makes me look like I'm fulfilling a socially valuable function here. Preventing people falling through the cracks in the safety net. Yeah. Even the most granite-nosed Sir Bufton Tufton with his 'stache, the most disgusted blue-rinser in Tunbridge Wells, would surely be transformed into a leg-warmer-wearing rupturing heart liberal by my incredible social conscience.
I wouldn't tell them about the fact that this is only half the story.
I wouldn't tell them about the woman who got evicted because of rent arrears and although she knew of the Court hearing, its location, and its date, she didn't go because it was raining. And then who expected me to get the local authority to rehouse her after this act of immense stupidity.
I wouldn't tell them about the chap who kept falling into rent arrears because he kept forgetting to attend his signings on at the Job Centre. Despite there being no reason why he could possibly forget about them given he had NOTHING ELSE TO DO all week.
I wouldn't tell them about the man who, on the eve of the Court hearing that would decide whether or not he could keep his home, saw fit to (allegedly) rob a takeaway driver for the food, and got arrested and hauled up before the criminal Courts the same day he was supposed to be in the County Court. And I definitely wouldn't tell them about how that saved his bacon when I was able to persuade the Judge to adjourn it and then, before the adjourned hearing, got him to make enough payments to dent the arrears enough that the landlord was willing to agree a repayment plan.
I wouldn't tell them about the man who beat his wife and then called me a "sissy" because I didn't occasionally chuck my girl friend down the stairs whenever she annoyed me, yet who I prevented from being evicted from his council flat.
I wouldn't tell them about the man who threatened to burn the office down if he lost his case and/or chop off my hands with a machete. And who didn't help himself by completely failing to stop ringing the housing officers and scream nasty obscenities at them. The fact I still have both hands and no scorch-marks is not compensation enough for having to represent this person.
I wouldn't tell them about the man (a self employed mortgage broker, no less) who self-certified a mortgage he clearly couldn't afford to pay when doing Right to Buy during the glory days of the mid 2000s (when everyone was handing out loans with the rations, practically) and then got repossessed after the recession bit and tried to get the Council to rehouse him on the basis that he was a victim of The System (despite the fact he oozed dodgebucketry from every orifice and quite frankly I'm surprised he didn't get done for fraud over what he put down on his self-certified mortgage application).
I wouldn't tell them about the endless times I molehill-mountaineered, cajoled, threatened, and harrumphed ostentatiously to try and browbeat the local authority into housing them when strictly speaking they really weren't entitled to it, they were just thinking they could chance it.
I wouldn't tell them about the woman who shat on the stairs to get back at her landlord.
I wouldn't tell them about the client that I secured £2,900.00 in damages for, plus his costs, then he grumbled that if he had known he was only going to get that much (which, to be fair, I couldn't have seen a Court awarding much more than based on what evidence he had), he'd not have got out of bed in the morning. Yeah. I'd like someone to give me a cheque for £2,900.00 thankya very much.
Speaking of which, there's a massive taboo amongst legal aid practitioners against discussing damages. I think it's seen as somehow distasteful to effectively brag about bagging Vast Compo while hand-wringing about "the vulnerable in society." Yet they all hanker after such big wins because it means they get their costs and the firm stays afloat.
The common link between all these tales of human idiocy, malice, and venality is that I'd say roughly 50% of my clients, if not more, were in legal hot water through their own actions in some way. They were the sole author of, or at least a significant contributor to, their own misfortune. But they wouldn't be told that. Being told that you don't have a case because you did something bloody stupid which invalidated it really gets their backs up. But the average legal aid practitioner won't tell you this. They'll tell you about the other 50%, the genuine hard luck stories, because that fits their narrative.
Truth is, yes, the world of social welfare in Britain today is not in a good shape. People fall through the cracks. People get stuffed by the system. They also do stupid things which don't help themselves, but expect to be bailed out from their own failure at life. This is understandable human nature. However, they could at least not repeat the same errors, surely. I had one client who I saved from eviction days before the bailiffs were due to attend on 7 separate occasions despite her complete failure to pay her rent even though she could (she'd FORGET TO PAY IT), until one day a Judge decided he'd had enough and put his foot down. And I couldn't really argue with it to be fair.
In a way, I'll miss Legal Aid. The camaraderie was quite fun. It was the same sort of camaraderie that the chaps had in The Cruel Sea where they all encouraged each other to keep singing so as not to fall asleep and freeze to death. The times when you could do nothing but just point and laugh. The warm glow of satisfaction as you prevented homelessness, imprisonment, deportation, or suchlike. The intellectual challenge of finding a suitable argument. But in other ways I'll not miss it. In fact, if any law students are reading this, my advice would be, avoid Legal Aid unless you are driven enough by a fervor for sticking up for the little guy that you'll put up with the terrible pay (and are rich enough already so to do), horrible bureaucratic scheisse, and the fact it's a blot on your CV that none of that matters.
Of course, this is not to say that we can do without legal aid. We can't. It is absolutely necessary to fill in the gaps in the safety net where possible. However, it is something I would strongly encourage people to think about carefully before volunteering to work in it.
I'm now going to trip-trap downstairs and eat a tuna sandwich.