August 17, 2020
Since joining the Justice First Fellowship, Alex Temple has taken cases to the highest courts in the land, developed expertise in children’s criminal records and school exclusions, and changed the lives for the better ‘of people I have never met and will never meet’.
On the first day of freshers’ week at the University of Kent, I was assigned my tutor for the next three years. He sat me and the rest of his new intake down in a semi-circle and asked the obvious question. Why did we decide to do law? One student barked “money” almost reflexively; his face the very picture of resolve. To my surprise at the time, my tutor chuckled at him.
I honestly cannot remember my answer. I guess I should try to make something up that sounds noble and profound, but there’s always a chance a fellow classmate could read this one day and out me.
Anyway, my answer then doesn’t really matter. I can honestly say I don’t think I really knew why I wanted to be a lawyer. I had done some work experience shadowing a solicitor and found it fulfilling. I guess that was the best information I had at the time.
When I first read about the Justice First Fellowship in September 2016, I felt like I had finally found my reason to be doing law. Instantly, my daily mantra changed from: ‘Remind me why I studied law again?’; to: ‘Thank my lucky stars I stuck with law.’ (The precise language may have been sanitised here…)
The Fellowship is the only programme of its kind in the UK: one that offers training to lawyers explicitly to further the cause of social welfare and access to justice across a range of disciplines and regions across Britain.
The Fellowship pairs fellows who are all aspiring solicitors and barristers with host organisations which are legal charities, advice agencies and law firms with an access to justice ethos. The hosts provide the necessary period of training for the fellows to qualify as lawyers. I took a place at Just for Kids Law, a charity that works to ensure the rights of children and young people are respected and their voices heard.
The week I arrived at Just for Kids Law, I was told there was an imminent hearing in the Court of Appeal concerning the lifetime disclosure of childhood criminal records. I had never been to the Court of Appeal before. Lord Levison, of press ethics inquiry fame, would hear the government’s appeal against a high court decision that had been made in our favour.
We successfully defended against the government’s appeal. I say ‘we’ but, of course, at the time I was little more than a spectator. I did not understand much of what was going on, a fresh trainee with limited relevant experience. Through the whole thing I was filled in equal part with wonder and self-doubt, nodding as intelligently as I could whenever my colleagues talked about the case.
But the government appealed to the Supreme Court and so over the next 18 months, criminal records became a theme of my work. I worked on more cases in the High Court, I spoke at events about children and the impact of their records, and eventually published a comprehensive guide to the criminal records regime.
I worked closely on the case as it approached the Supreme Court and on the last day of my training contract, almost too perfectly, judgment was handed down in our favour. The criminal records regime would be fixed. I had my photo snapped in front of the Supreme Court for the Independent newspaper. I was wearing an ill-fitting suit that made me look a little like I was photobombing my immaculately presented colleagues.
Working on this case made me feel pride and luck in equally huge measures. I feel pride because I had contributed to a desperately needed change in the law that will literally change lives for the better – lives of people I have never met and will never meet. I still find it hard to get my head around that. I feel lucky because I had been fortunate enough to find the Justice First Fellowship and Just for Kids Law at just the right time to be a part of that journey. I also felt a little bit of dread, wondering whether my career had peaked too early.
I would love to keep rattling off all the amazing experiences I’ve had in the course of the Fellowship but that would take a long time and become tedious in short order. However, I have to mention ‘the project’. Every Fellow completes a project during their training. Mine was the School Exclusions Hub web platform. It supports families who are bringing challenges to exclusions from school. Through skills I developed in the Fellowship I designed, developed, funded and launched this project. The launch was one of the proudest days of my life. It has become a feature of education law, with users nationally, and I feel like I’ve been able to turn my passions into a real, tangible tool for social good.
I appreciate that last sentence reads a little like it was lifted from my CV, but it’s important to record what opportunities the JFF has offered me. A fulfilling training period is great, but a fleeting part of the equation as it will be over before you know it (believe me!). Choosing the right organisation to train at is critical to a sustained career.
After the training is finished, the Fellowship talks a big game of fostering an ongoing relationship as the fellow progresses with their career. This claim is not without merit. Last year I took my civil higher advocacy rights course and a certificate in practice management. This year I visited New York through the JFF learning exchange, an intense one-week scheme to visit and learn from social welfare legal organisations, courts and legal innovators in New York City to bring some learning back to the UK. I am aware that my own organisation owes its origins to a similar trip more than a decade ago and I can see how we still have so much learning to do here.
When I look back on my life, I am sure that the JFF will appear as a defining moment in it. I have not come out of it the same person I went into it. I am proud to be a part of a community of social welfare lawyers who have already achieved so much. I am grateful to be able to engage in hugely meaningful work that, let’s face it, offers plenty of opportunities for gloating rights. I do encourage anyone considering a career in law, with a passion for social welfare, to take a long hard look at the JFF. You won’t regret it.
Alex Temple is a Justice First Fellow and solicitor at Just for Kids Law.
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