Solicitor, Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre, London
Who? Sophie Earnshaw, solicitor, Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre, London.
Why is she in the news? Represented the victim of an acid attack who overturned an attempt to strip her of a disability benefit after being told she was fit for work.
Thoughts on the case: ‘This is a particularly horrific and depressing example of the Department for Work & Pensions’ decision-making. As a victim of an acid attack, our client lives in constant pain and trauma which restrict her ability to live a “normal” life. However, she is just one of many who are at the receiving end of a system that is designed to move people into work, regardless of disability, poor health or difficult circumstances. In addition to the DWP’s poor decisions, there is a two-stage appeal system which is essentially a delaying tactic to deter claimants from challenging decisions. Had our client not appealed this decision, she would have been moved on to Universal Credit, had a reduction in income, and would have been vulnerable to benefit sanctions due to the work requirement. Undoubtedly, this would have had a detrimental impact on her life.’
Dealing with the media: ‘It is important for these stories to be in the public domain, but it has to be led by the client. Our client was happy for details of her case to be shared but wished to remain anonymous. After the hearing, I posted a thread on social media because I felt so angry that she had been put through such a stressful and unnecessary experience. It is due to the extreme facts of this case that it received such publicity, but every day there are similar cases regarding the failure of the social security system to meet the needs of low-income households.’
Why become a lawyer? ‘I saw the law as a powerful and practical tool to make a difference to people’s lives. I was also interested in the strategic change the law can make to policy. I moved into law later on in my career having worked in social justice. I was fortunate to do my training contract through the Legal Education Foundation’s Justice First Fellowship scheme which supports aspiring lawyers committed to social welfare.’
Career high: ‘Doing my training contract at Child Poverty Action Group, representing Grenfell clients and working for law centres has been invaluable. In particular, being able to help and support those affected by the Grenfell fire was an experience that will stay with me forever. The community is incredibly dignified, strong and remarkable.’
Career low: ‘The legal aid system and the impact of the cuts following LASPO on those who need help bring daily frustrations. For example, there is no legal aid for benefit appeals to the First-tier Tribunal.’