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What is the Justice First Fellowship?
The Justice First Fellowship (JFF) is run by the Legal Education Foundation (LEF) and provides a unique route into a legal career. It is aimed at those wanting to use law as a tool for social justice and to promote access to justice. Through training contracts and pupillages in social welfare law, including children law, the scheme aims to empower Fellows to be the next generation of legal aid lawyers.
The JFF scheme includes the opportunity to work on an individual project and to develop communication and campaigning skills. For example, I recently attended a workshop on the importance of relationship building and collaboration in effecting social change. There are lots of opportunities to think about how we as Fellows, and our wider organisations, can work together, and what future collaborations might look like. There is also help for Fellows to prioritise good mental health and sustainable work practices through meetings with Claiming Space.
What was your journey into The Justice First Fellowship?
My journey into law has not been straightforward. I left college aged 17 following a family bereavement and worked in retail for several years. Whilst working, I completed an Access to Law course that enabled me to study law at university. After graduating, I worked in the voluntary sector in various roles: as a Human Resource administrator at YMCA England and a team administrator for the legal and welfare services team at Freedom from Torture. It was when working at Freedom from Torture that I discovered how powerful a tool the law can be in protecting and promoting human rights.
After the introduction of post-graduate loans, I took the step into studying my legal practice course (LPC) LLM (Master of Law) part-time. I continued to work and also volunteered at a number of legal charities, including the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) and Islington Law Centre. Then, in second year of my LPC LLM, I secured my first paralegal role. This was working full time in a public law team, supporting solicitors dealing with Mental Capacity Act 2005 cases in the Court of Protection and judicial reviews. I regularly visited clients who often lacked capacity to make decisions about where they lived and the care they received. It was my job to listen to their views and concerns, and make sure these were heard by the court. I really understood the importance of building rapport and trusting relationships with clients and their family members. And as I worked with passionate and knowledgeable lawyers, I once more saw the difference the law could make.
After a lot of hard work (if I do say so myself), I completed my LPC LLM and then I applied for the JFF scheme and was thrilled to be successful!
What drew you to Family Rights Group?
Having experience in both the legal and charity sector, Family Rights Group was the perfect fit for me. The charity has a long and important history in the child welfare and family justice sector having played an integral part in the development of the Children Act in 1989. Family Rights Group was instrumental in the development of special guardianship orders, which whilst providing the child with legal permanence, unlike adoption, do not severe the legal relationship between the child and their family. The charity continues to have insight into and influence on the development of law and practice concerning children and families.
I also knew that Family Rights Group ran a free specialist advice for parents, relatives and friends about their rights and options when social workers or courts make decisions about their children’s welfare. They do amazing work to ensure children and families’ voices and experiences are central to their work through parents’ and kinship panels. I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer who makes sure my clients are heard and their voices are amplified.
The opportunity to train at Family Rights Group was too good to miss.
How has the first sixth months of your training contract been?
As I am sure all trainees would say, no two days are the same! I produce weekly and quarterly legal and practice updates for our advice and advocacy team, and wider staff. I have really enjoyed having the opportunity to focus on recent developments in case law, legislative changes, Ombudsman decisions, news and interesting articles.
As well as being part of the charity’s small but mighty legal team, I’ve spent lots of time with colleagues across the organisation. This means that I’ve had the chance to develop my knowledge of the child welfare system and children public law with input from colleagues who are lawyers, social workers, family rights advocates, policy and public affairs experts.
I regularly draft advice to parents and kinship carers on our advice forums on a range of topics such as what they can expect during a pre-birth assessment, or the care proceedings process. I’ve had the chance to take on legal queries raised by our advice and advocacy team regarding interesting areas of public children’s law. Recently I developed a practice note focusing on whether a man can retain and exercise parental responsibility if, following DNA testing, he discovers he is not the child’s biological father.
I spend quite a bit of time out and about (at least virtually!) attending meetings and events. I recently hosted a breakout group for members of Family Rights Group’s kinship carers’ panel as part of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. I’m also able to observe and support the work of the Public Law Working Group (PLWG) which the charity’s Principal Legal Adviser and Chief Executive sit on. The PLWG was set up in 2018, in the aftermath of the Care Crisis Review, by the President of the Family Division of the High Court to explore how to safely divert children from public law proceedings, and to ensure the timeliness and fairness of court decisions. Its publications feed directly into improving the family justice system so it has been great to see the work behind these materials.
What does the project part of the Justice First Fellowship entail?
The project work really differentiates the Fellowship from a traditional training contract. All Fellows get the chance to work on an individual project that is of interest to them and fits with the strategic priorities of their host organisation. The projects can have lasting impact and directly improve people’s access to justice.
My project focuses on children returning home from the care system to their parents – ‘reunification’. A return home to parents is the most likely outcome for children leaving care, however the planning and support available to the child and their family in preparation for, at this time of, and post transition can too often be inadequate. Families may well not know their rights and options nor have legal advice or advocacy support.
So far, I’ve delved into a range of legal and policy material to really understand the evolution, and features, of the current legal and practice framework relevant to reunification. It has been interesting to see enduring messages about the importance of partnership work and support for families. I’ve also been looking at some of the academic research about reunification to tease out key messages. All of this is helping me to shape a ‘stocktake’ report reflecting on we know about reunification. I will also be developing new advice website content about reunification including template self-advocacy letters for families and campaigning materials through which families share their experiences of reunification.
What are you looking forward in the next sixth months of your training contact?
In October 2021 I start a six-month secondment to Goodman Ray solicitors, a leading specialist family law firm. Whilst there, I will be focusing on acting for clients involved in public care proceedings. I am really looking forward to getting hands on experience of working on client cases, attending court and then bringing back some valuable ‘on the ground’ knowledge for my return to Family Rights Group in spring 2022.