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Nicola Laver

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Quotation Marks
Headlines such as ‘Essex lawyers man phone lines to help patients complain about NHS waiting times’ doesn’t have quite the same draw as ‘Priti Patel blames ‘leftie lawyers and do-gooders’ for UK’s broken asylum system’

Goodwill to all mankind

Goodwill to all mankind


A disabled man (let’s call him Bob) emailed me the week before we went to press, asking for legal help. “I’ll pay you whatever your hourly rate is, please help me”, he wrote. He’s living in a care facility with a permanent spinal injury following an accident. Bob wants to bring a claim for abuse at the hands of carers over a four-month period, and for breach of duty and victimisation – all of which allegedly began after he blew the whistle on what he described as data breaches within the facility.

The Care Quality Commission declared the care home, at the time of the abuse, as unsafe and inspectors had ordered the organisation to improve. A report following a council investigation appears to back his claims against some of the carers involved. Bob emailed me a newspaper report citing the report and his own name. He was prepared to pay “something of course, say £50”, but the solicitor he had talked to was charging £200+ VAT per hour. “I thought I could pay a little less and get off the record advice”, he said. Bob cannot get legal aid. I suggested he try Citizens Advice or ask a local solicitor about no win no fee (or even a 30-minute free consultation) but this, said Bob, had already proved unsuccessful. He was, in his own words, “clutching at straws”. There is always, as they say, two sides to a story.

But on the face of it – Bob has little if any access to justice. And in his words, he would be taking on an organisation with “big pockets”. But this illustrates the difficulties many individuals experience when they cannot get the legal help they clearly need. When those individuals are vulnerable and yet, as Bob said, will have to “do it online myself” – with a corporate as the defendant – the imbalance in power and resources couldn’t be starker.

There must be more visible and accessible legal help for all, particularly the most vulnerable in society. This month’s cover feature (page 22) reveals the extent to which our profession is dedicated to pro bono work, even during the pandemic when firms themselves are being impacted by the economic fallout. Most lawyers struggle with the relentless mental exertion of virtual meetings and hearings on Zoom and the like, so it’s unsurprising that a key problem identified by lawyers undertaking and supporting pro bono work relates to digital barriers caused by the crisis.

As Martin Barnes of LawWorks succinctly puts it: “… it is not so much people’s legal needs per se which have changed… rather their ability to access advice and support, much of which has necessarily transferred from face to face to a virtual experience.” Many a firm is going above and beyond to provide the right support for the vulnerable and disadvantaged. It’s unfortunate that this is a picture of lawyers the mainstream media is none too keen to promote. Headlines such as “Essex lawyers man phone lines to help patients complain about NHS waiting times” doesn’t have quite the same draw as “Priti Patel blames ‘leftie lawyers and do-gooders’ for UK’s broken asylum system”.

But lawyers could have the last laugh by Christmas. More than 800 lawyers, including from the judiciary, have called for an apology from the prime minister and home secretary for their use of hostile rhetoric which puts lawyers’ lives at risk. Will an apology be forthcoming? Patel has, predictably, doubled down on her comments so the initial signs aren’t good. But the government has been getting pretty good at U-turns in recent months and so perhaps, with a touch of Christmas goodwill, a little backtracking if not a full apology could yet surprise us all.