Back when I was a trainee solicitor (and, yes, I do still remember!), I had a client, Mr B, who was suing the police. He told me his story and waited for me to respond. His shoulders were hunched. He had very little hope or expectation. When I told him that I believed him, he cried. I knew then that I wanted to help him and anyone else like him who needed someone to champion their case. He used part of his compensation to take his daughter to Disneyland, making a little girl very happy indeed. I still remember his smile when I handed him his cheque and I saw in his eyes all the possibilities that it promised for him and his family.
Not all people will go to Disneyland but there are lots of people who suffer at the hands of police officers. It’s people like Mr B who have left me with indelible memories that remind me why I have remained passionate about this kind of work for over twenty years.
Over this same period of time I have also specialised in Mental Health work. This has involved representing clients trying to get released from compulsory detention in hospital together with other cases in the High Court, Court of Appeal, the (former) House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights. These cases involved arguing, more often that not, about human rights issues. Trying to push the boundaries of the law with engaging and rewarding cases such as these has been a highlight of my career so far."
In my experience, there are generally two kinds of people who practice social welfare; those who (like many professions) end up doing it and those who chose to from a very early stage. I fall into the latter group and studied law with the specific aim of practicing in mental health. I made this commitment having come into contact with Mental Health Law through the experiences of a relative combined with the realisation that I might not be suited to a career in Bar Management.
I’m not sure it’s possible to ‘love’ Mental Health Law as it involves dealing with some very unfortunate situations which can be hugely distressing for those detained and medicated because they are so unwell. It is fulfilling, however, to try and represent people in difficult situations where their rights are significantly curtailed and they can sometimes be quite vulnerable. That having been said, there are many wonderful people within the mental health system including the patients and clients as well as the professionals who are also committed to this area of health and law.
I hope that at GN Law we have remained true to our values which have always been to put the client first, to try and understand their position such that we can advise them as best possible and to remain independent at all times. Inevitably, in this area of law, especially with individuals who have been detained for decades, representing someone involves trust, understanding and empathy as the issues involved can be deeply personal. For the right kind of person, a career in Mental Health Law will be different, interesting and when done properly, very fulfilling.
When I was studying law at university, I was given the impression that the options for my career in law were between corporate or commercial. My peers were applying to magic circle firms for training contracts, but that did not take my interest. Two years later, I took a paralegal role at GN Law, in the prison law department. Within four months of working within the prison law and mental health departments, I decided that I did, after all, want to complete my LPC and pursue a career in law, specifically within legal aid.
I went on to become a trainee, completing seats in mental health, housing and, primarily, community care and Court of Protection. It was these two latter areas which particularly took my interest, and still do today. When I qualified as a solicitor, Court of Protection was a fledging department in the firm. I was keen to keep working in this area, and to grow the department because I think there was (and still is) a real shortage of solicitors who specialise in this area. Vulnerable clients, more than anyone, need solicitors who know what they are doing, and who care about what they do. It has taken a lot of hard work and has entailed some steep learning curves, but we are now a team of 7, and I feel fortunate and proud to have been able to grow my own department in an area of law which I feel passionate about.
Representing clients with, sometimes severe, mental illnesses or cognitive impairments is always a challenge, but never boring. I enjoy meeting my clients, and thinking creatively about how best to communicate with them to ensure they understand as much as they can about their case, and to express their wishes, even when they lack capacity, as well as ensuring they have as much autonomy as possible.
I also enjoy the intricacies of the law in this area; it is still relatively new, and there have been significant, and ongoing, developments during my time practising as a solicitor, in terms of judicial guidance, new rules, and many factually and legally interesting case law to explore, and even to develop myself.