Justice First Fellows are already helping to ensure valuable social welfare work continues.
The Supreme Court recently dismissed the Department for Work and Pensions’ appeal against the decision of the Court of Appeal that the bedroom tax unlawfully discriminated against a disabled woman and her husband, and a severely disabled child who needs overnight care (R (Rutherford and Todd) v SSWP UKSC 0029/2016).
This is great news for the families involved and others like them.
It was great news, too, for the legal team behind this case at the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), including the trainee solicitor who acted for the family, Sophie Earnshaw. It also felt like a significant moment for The Legal Education Foundation’s Justice First Fellowship scheme. Sophie is in her first year as one of our Justice First Fellows, and her success in this case strengthens our belief that the scheme will have the kind of impact we have been hoping for.
We established the fellowship scheme in 2014 to support the next generation of social justice lawyers. Sophie is one of 20 fellows currently being hosted by law firms and specialist social welfare agencies across the UK, and their number is set to increase to 31 by early next year.
The scheme is open equally to legal aid firms and not-for-profit agencies; host organisations receive a grant from the foundation fully covering the trainee’s salary, supervision and other costs over two years.
We know that the fellowship scheme cannot fill the gaps left by legal aid cuts but, faced with the collapse in numbers of training contracts, we wanted to ensure new talent can come through to ensure that work in this vital area of law continues.
To this end, we wanted to do more than just facilitate a modest increase in the number of social welfare lawyers, important though that is. We also wanted to equip our fellows with the wider skills and networks they will need to go on to run effective and sustainable services in the future.
This means being excellent lawyers, making creative use of the law (such as taking a case to the Supreme Court in your first year), but also developing skills in project planning, communications, fundraising, networking, technology, and so on.
Alongside the training contract, our fellows run their own projects, aimed at increasing access to justice, and we bring them together regularly as a group for training and support, and so they feel that they are part of a movement of lawyers devoted to an area of law that deserves recognition and prestige.
As a funder, we have been using our wider grant-making to support the sector to respond to the challenges.
We see at close hand organisations which, despite extremely difficult circumstances, are at the forefront of this, including the likes of CPAG, Ben Hoare Bell, Central England Law Centre, Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, Deighton Pierce Glynn, to name a few.
The scheme is funded by TLEF, along with 15 co-funders, including charitable trusts and law firms. In Bristol and Birmingham, nine firms have come together to co-fund Justice First Fellows at the law centres in their cities.
We are now in the process of recruiting firms and agencies to host a JFF trainee in 2018 (applications close mid-December). I would urge any organisation which is committed to delivering high-quality social welfare law to consider applying. The process is competitive, with organisations having to demonstrate that they can provide the best possible environment for fellows to learn and practise the skills they will need.
When we launched the scheme in 2014, a senior solicitor at one law centre reflected that the fellowship was rare and welcome recognition that their work matters. It does – and we look forward to continuing to work with our growing number of host organisations, fellows, co-funders, and the wider profession, to ensure it continues. For more details, go to the JFF website.
Matthew Smerdon is chief executive of The Legal Education Foundation