Brian…in need of a #legalaidhero

man holding head in hands rear view

Let me introduce you to Brian…

Brian is 6’4″ tall, weighs 22 stone, shaves his head and has tattoos covering about two-thirds of his body. Brian suffers from a number of physical difficulties including epilepsy and has been categorised as having a borderline personality disorder and takes a cocktail of medication each day.

He speaks slowly and has a broad West Country accent. First impressions on meeting Brian are rarely positive. Physically he is intimidating and his speech and mannerisms often give the impression that he is slow to comprehend things.

As a result the contact he has had with authority figures whether that be police, doctors, social services or courts rarely go smoothly. People treat him as being stupid, and he becomes frustrated, voices are raised and one thing leads to another, usually badly for Brian. Brian is certainly not stupid, just unable to communicate very well.

Three years ago Brian met Sheila. Sheila was the love of his life, his first girlfriend. For ten months Brian spent all his time with and all his money on Sheila; flowers, chocolates, fancy meals, clothes, jewellery and a myriad of other gifts. All was well with his life.

At the end of ten months Sheila left Brian and there was no reason given, no real explanation, she just stopped answering his calls, texts were not responded to and her Mum told him she was never in. Brian became depressed, his medication was upped and over time he found a level to build from.

Then two months later Sheila contacted him again.

A text, would he meet her, she wanted to talk.

Delighted, he met her in their café and she told him she was pregnant. Not for a minute did he question whether he was the father. In his head he straight away made plans about what the baby would need, where they could go and what he would do with her. Sheila made it clear that she didn’t want him to have any involvement at all, he could provide for the baby and that was that. Nothing Brian could say would change her mind.

Resigned to the fact he may never see his child he nevertheless started buying clothes, toys and other essentials from his Disability Living Allowance. He opened an account and put £10 a week into it, “For when she was 18 and needed a car”.

Six months later, Hazel was born.

Brian was not present at the birth and was only told he had a daughter two weeks after the actual birth by way of a text message. Brian immediately went to see Sheila but she wouldn’t see him. He didn’t see Hazel but was sent a blurry picture to his mobile phone.

At that point someone told Brian that he was entitled to see his daughter, he had rights.

There then started eight months of assessments; court, doctors and social workers and various distressing court hearings where Brian’s life was dissected.

You see, not only did Brian have various medical issues he had a caution when he was 17, for sexual assault. He had kissed a girl, a fifteen year old, who he thought was his best friend. She told her Mum, she told the police and he was arrested. The circumstances were not in dispute but it meant Brian was a potential risk to a child, even his own.

Finally the court ordered that Brian be allowed three two hour contact sessions a week, supervised and in a child friendly environment.

For three months all went well. Brian had his contact and he thrived from it. He had a new tattoo on his arm proudly proclaiming his daughters name and date of birth. He was in his own words, “as happy as I had ever been”.

Then, through no fault of his own his benefits money changed and he had less to live on. Some weeks he could not afford to pay the maintenance he had been paying to Sheila.

Suddenly Hazel was ill, she was away, she was asleep and so he was no longer having his contact. She wasn’t, they were all just excuses made up by Sheila. For a while Brian accepted these reasons and did not make a fuss. As the days went by his frustration increased, calls were made to Sheila, texts sent and visits made. Still no contact.

Battling with his emotions; the frequency of the calls increased, texts filled Sheila’s inbox, he knocked on her door more and more often. Frustration moved to annoyance and then anger. Words were said in desperation and sent in texts for all to see.

Brian was arrested for harassment and I turned out at 11pm to represent him. I spent forty minutes and gleaned all the information above. I was able to judge who Brian was and where the root cause of the problem came from.

After advice and an interview, representations were made to the Sgt and a caution given. Brian was also told how he could enforce his court order for contact, and an appointment made for the following day.

I went on to the next client and forgot about Brian. I saw him a few weeks later pushing a pram, fussing about a blanket over his baby daughter. We stopped and chatted for a few minutes, made the obligatory comments about a beautiful baby, wished him well and went on with my day.

A few days ago I was called to the police station for a “lump of a man” who had been difficult from the moment he came in and was still being difficult in his cell. He had been arrested for common assault.

I went straight up to the station. I was told that the client was Brian and was told that four weeks ago he had punched his ex partner over a contact visit, they were both in the middle of a busy shop, people and children had been scared. He was asked to leave and he had walked off.

I was told that he had admitted it when he was arrested and that the interview was a formality. There was no injury but having in mind his earlier caution on the same victim, he was likely to be charged.

I was able to find out by speaking to the officer, although he was reluctant to tell me, that the statement had only been made three days ago.

I spoke to Brian. He was in tears, a monster of a man sobbing into his fists in the corner of the interview room.

It seemed that, on the day, he and Sheila had made the usual arrangements for a contact visit, but one of them had made a mistake and having waited twenty minutes Sheila had gone off shopping. Brian had called her and when she said she was in the supermarket shopping, he had gone down to speak to her and hopefully persuade Sheila to allow the contact visit.

He had gone to the shop where he had found Sheila with her head in a freezer choosing a pizza. When he called her name he said she didn’t answer him but thought she may not have heard him, it was after all a busy shop and her head was in the freezer.

“So what did you do?”

“I tapped her hard on the shoulder to get her attention so i could speak to her. She shouted at me and the Manager asked me to leave”

He denied that he had on he had punched her, and maintained that he was not angry with her.

He went on to say that he hadn’t seen Hazel since, and he had not paid Sheila maintenance for three weeks because he had not had contact. Three days ago she said she was going to report the assault.

He was scared that he would lose all his contact with Hazel because of more lies. He said that Sheila did not need him now as she had a new boyfriend. He said he didn’t want to talk to the police officers as they wouldn’t let him speak and thought he was stupid.

I explained that in law he had committed an assault by touching her without her permission, even if he had not punched her. I told him he needed to explain his history with Sheila to the officers and that the officers had not let him speak before because they wanted to protect him and themselves as the comments needed to be on tape.

Brian wasn’t certain whether he could say all he wanted to say properly, he didn’t think he could talk to the officers and let them know all they needed to know. He was scared that he would make his situation worse and by admitting an assault Sheila would go back to the court and he would lose his contact.

I drafted a prepared statement, Brian signed it, the interview started and the statement was read out.   I made it clear that Brian was happy to answer any clarification questions. With patience and cajoling from me and the AA Brian got through the interview.

The officer told the Sgt that he had made a full admission to the offence, that he had been frustrated by the contact being messed up and he had hit Sheila on the shoulder.   She was factually correct, that’s what he had said in his statement, and in the questions he had then answered. The meaning of what he had said was different, a fact I explained to the Sgt and the officer.

After much discussion and thought, it was agreed that on the balance of the evidence, the lack of corroborative witnesses and taking Brian himself and the situation behind the allegation into account that there should be no further action and Brian was released.   He still has to resolve the issue of contact but at least he does not have the extra burden of a charge to deal with.

Brian is just one of the people that find themselves in difficulty who need help and don’t know how to help themselves.

The current government plans to cut the legal aid fees again, the introduction of two tier contracts mean the relationship we have we clients is at risk of being lost.   The risk is that a fee needs to be effective and profitable, and the longer you spend with a client in the station the less profit there is.   Experience will be sacrificed for cheapness.   The vulnerable cases that need time and patience may be swept to one side for a quick and easy fee.

In Brian’s case I could spend time with him initially at the time of his first arrest and obtain the vital information about his personal circumstances. I developed a relationship of trust with him, and even as an authority figure he felt able to ask for me again.   Of course legal aid lawyers do the job because it’s a living, it pays our bills and generates an element of profit (albeit ever decreasing) for the firms we work for.  Yet, no-one I know who does this job does it for money alone.   We do it because it needs to be done and because we want to do it, and because we all believe that those we act for are entitled to have someone stand up for them and speak when they can’t.

We are not heroes, simply people who believe that access to justice is as important for those who society think don’t deserve it as for those who they do.

Advertisements

Not heroes, just normal people doing a difficult job…

The pile of files sitting on my desk at the moment represent to me the cases I have to deal with in the next forty-eight hours, or have dealt with in the past few days.    They include three young lads contesting an ASBO, two or three shoplifters who have fallen on hard times, an older man who on a night out tried to stop his friends doing something silly and got dragged into a brawl, a woman whose son was playing up and in trying to calm him down is alleged to have scratched him, a Dad who having been prevented from seeing his young son for seven months is charged with harassment after he repeatedly begged his ex for contact by text.

For the people whose name is on the front of those files they represent a critical point in their lives. For some it will be the one and only time that they ever come before a court, for others it will be another visit in a long list of appearances.   How I deal with those files, what work I do and how I present their cases could make a real difference in the outcome for them.

My first senior partner was an old school lawyer in every sense of the word. He was from a fortunate background which meant he didn’t need to work, and probably hadn’t needed to work for the nearly forty years he had been qualified. He didn’t need to turn out at 2am on a Sunday morning but he still regularly did.

I once asked him why he still flogged away at the coal face and he told me that he felt he had a moral imperative to speak up for those who could not themselves. He said clients would come to me to discuss their problems, their issues and put them all in an untidy pile on the desk in front of you. As their lawyer it was my job to try to sort through those problems, those messy issues and as far as I could make sure that the pile of problems and issues they took away were at least a bit tidier and a bit smaller when they went away.

As a legal aid lawyer this is what I have always tried to do; this is what in my experience my colleagues, friends and other legal aid lawyers try to do on a daily basis up and down the country. It may not always be appreciated, it certainly doesn’t pay well and it drives the accountants mad.

We are not angels, we are not crusaders, we are not all morally blind liberals. We all have the bills to pay, the calls on our time from family and friends, the worries, the hopes and the expectations that those we represent have. We just understand that clients should have a choice in who they put their trust in, who they want to make their problems a little more manageable. Quality advice makes a difference to the client, to the victim and to all concerned. We are committed to providing a quality service that we can be proud of.

As lawyers we stand up every day and plead our clients cases, we ask for understanding of what they have done, we argue their case because they can’t.

This is what the Ministry of Justice is seeking to take away, this is what they are trying to dismantle in favour of a supposed cheap, efficient and acceptable service. This is why I and thousands like me continue to fight against these cuts, against the way our profession is being pushed.

If you want the right to choose the lawyer that will care about the name on the front of the file then please do the same. If you want the profession to wither on the vine then don’t do anything at all, sit back and hope someone else does something, and that you are never the name on the front of one of those files.