We have a monthly column in the Law Society Messenger. You can see the full December edition here. This month, GMLC volunteer Alex McColl writes about what drives him as an aspiring barrister pursuing a career in social welfare and human rights law.
The Greater Manchester Law Centre is a campaign for free access to justice. Supporting the next generation of social welfare lawyers is an essential part of this campaign.
Social welfare law assists people on low incomes with issues including benefits, housing, health and social care, mental health and deprivation of liberty. Many law students don’t have the opportunity to study social welfare law because it isn’t offered by their university, and where the topic is included, it is an optional module. his lack of education combined with lower pay and fewer opportunities than the more lucrative areas of law means that the future of the sector needs fighting for now more than ever.
Below, GMLC volunteer Alex McColl writes about what drives him as an aspiring barrister pursuing a career in social welfare and human rights law.
I am a volunteer at the Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC) and I am currently in the process of applying for pupillage to begin the final stage of becoming a barrister. It is my ultimate aim to practice within the legal aid sector and, ideally, I would like to specialise in social welfare and human rights law. Voluntary work is an essential and a valuable step for all those who want to practise in this area, and yet the voluntary sector is under a constant and sustained threat.
I started my legal education in 2010, the same year that the coalition government began the process of implementing far-reaching reforms which have transformed the provision of social welfare, reduced the availability of legal aid, and restricted access to justice. My first experiences of volunteering during my law degree exposed me to an advice sector that was struggling to cope with the increasing demand brought on by welfare reforms coupled with the significantly reduced funding resulting from changes to legal aid.
Choosing to pursue a career at the bar is necessarily a very difficult choice. The Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) is very expensive, a huge amount of work, and there are no guarantees of a job at the end of it. As anyone who is currently looking knows, obtaining pupillage is extremely competitive.
Nationally, thousands of bar students are competing for just a few hundred pupillages a year, across all practice areas. The pool of legal aid, human rights, and social welfare pupillages is even smaller and there is a financial penalty for following this path. Many pupils are beginning their careers with only a £12,000 pupillage award for the year, even in London, and no guarantees of a stable or sustainable income in the years that follow.
Because of these challenges, those pursuing the social welfare career path do not tend to be motivated by money or prestige. I have been lucky to meet some truly dedicated and inspirational people sacrificing a lot of their free time and efforts. What made me first want to study law is the same thing that makes me want to succeed in becoming a social welfare lawyer: we live in a society which does not value the economically vulnerable. Those who are vulnerable or in need of help are targeted by government policies because they put up the least resistance. Those who advise them have their funding removed. Social welfare and human rights law are important tools for empowering individuals to challenge the position the government put them in, and this is why governments are so hostile to them. Supporting independent advice centres like GMLC is an essential part of this process.
My experience at GMLC has been very positive. I currently assist people with making Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payments (PIP) benefit applications. I have learned a lot and gained a deep insight into people’s lives which cuts to the heart of their experience of the benefits system. I am continuously struck by the inhumanity of a process that subjects people to extremely complex application procedures, daunting face-to-face assessments and a bizarre and irrational points system for determining whether or not a benefit will be granted. And yet it is exactly the people who are experiencing this system who feel the greatest impact of reduced access to advice centres and legal aid.
The limited number of opportunities for those wanting to practise in social welfare law stands in stark contrast to the number of people who are in need of advice and representation. And yet, a dedicated team of volunteers at GMLC work tirelessly on the frontlines. Thanks to community support and donations, organisations like GMLC are keeping up the fight for this sector. They have reclaimed over one million pounds in benefits falsely denied to disabled and unwell people in Greater Manchester, established hugely successful schemes with local universities where students receive training and provide essential services, and raised the profile of the need for fully funded legal advice and representation. I’m under no illusions about the career path I have chosen, but I am proud to fight for the future of free access to justice alongside the rest of GMLC.
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£10 = pays towards the costs of a single advice session with our housing solicitor or benefits advisers.
£20 = pays towards the costs of completing complicated benefits and appeal forms
.£50 = pays towards the costs of training one of our GMLC volunteer legal advisers or a medical letter to support a person to get homelessness assistance.
£100 = pays towards the costs of a full day’s housing clinic with 10 appointments for people who are homeless or at risk of losing their home, or legal representation
for a single client at a benefit tribunal.