Sarah Slaughter, Case Worker, Bar Pro Bono Unit
This article was written in support of National Pro Bono Week, running from 2–6 November 2015.
National Pro Bono Week is a nationwide campaign to celebrate the range and impact of voluntary free legal services provided by the legal profession. Support the campaign on Twitter using #NPBW2015 and #WeDoProBono
What is your position and what do you do on a day-to-day basis?
Caseworker. I process applications from litigants in person for assistance to the Bar Pro Bono Unit - that means a lot of administrative duties! I check the applications to ensure all relevant documentation has been enclosed, then arrange for a senior barrister to review the file and decide whether the charity is able to assist. Once that decision has been made, I notify the applicant then look for a volunteer barrister to assist. Once someone has come forward, I instruct the barrister and a client relationship is formed. Should the applicant need further assistance, they come back to me to repeat the process. I deal with hundreds of clients so my days are very busy!
How long have you been in this role and what brought you here?
I joined the Unit in July 2014, having learned about them whilst working at the High Court. I was frustrated at not being able to do anything for litigants in person at the Court, and wanted a job in which I could be of more assistance to people who need help with legal issues.
What are the people you work for/with like? Any memorable stories?
We are a small team, but you wouldn't guess that from the noise we are capable of making! Sometimes, though, our office is very quiet, with only the sound of keyboard typing filling the air. We take time out to help each other, especially with a difficult case, and every other week the casework team meets up for tea and cake for a chance to chat about tricky or complex cases and give each other tips on how to manage the growing workload.
We had a pumpkin carving competition at Halloween this year, and some of us dressed up for the day at work. I was a zombie and had to scrub off the makeup on my face halfway through the day - sadly I didn't realise that the fake blood was going to leave big red stains on my face!
What is the best and worst part of the day for you?
The best part of the day could come at any time - it's that feeling I get when a barrister confirms they are going to help someone. It never gets old! I love knowing that feeling that someone is willing to use their specialist knowledge and experience to assist another person who lacks these skills.
The worst part of the day is the exact opposite - having to inform a desperate applicant that we have been unable to find a volunteer. This is most common in family cases. We get such a high demand for assistance with family matters that it is very hard for us to find volunteers. The number of divorce and custody applications shot up as a result of LASPO - in 2014 58% of our applications were requests for assistance in a family case, up from 20% in 2012.
What adjectives best describe you?
Extravert. Entertaining. Enthusiastic. Energetic. Empathetic. Emotional. Earnest. Easy-going.
Enjoyer of alliteration.
What keeps you motivated?
In theoretical terms: the knowledge that I am being useful to somebody. In practical terms: I look at the 'Wall of Happiness' we have created, which is a cork board full of thank-you cards and kind words. It's a useful reminder that we are here for a reason!
Tea or coffee?
Jasmine tea leaves at home, camomile tea bags at work.
What would you say to anyone thinking of a career in your field?
I would ask if they are willing to spend sleepless nights worrying about their clients, if they are ready to fervently wish for more hours in the day, and if they can cope with sometimes having to let people down. I'd then ask if they would love to make a small but important positive impact on the life of someone who desperately needs help, if they are ready to meet wonderful colleagues and volunteers who will provide support when they most need it, and if they are willing to work within a sector that truly cares about those with whom it is involved.
What song do you listen to the most?
I love reggae and disco, and just recently I have been Shaking my Groove Thing on the commute in the mornings to Peaches and Herb. That must be rather irritating to anyone who has to stand next to me on the train!
How do you enjoy your time outside of work?
I have a regular volunteer shift at Passage House, a hostel in London. I also volunteer for Crisis at Christmas each year. Outside of that I meet with friends and go out to dinner or attend interesting talks and presentations. I love to travel and try and get away to see friends abroad when I can. When at home I love a good frivolous crime drama on the telly. If it's in a foreign language I can pretend it is high-brow entertainment!
If you could change one thing about the family justice system what would it be and why?
I would like to change the rules affecting victims of domestic violence. Some of our applicants are forced to represent themselves if the violence occurred more than two years ago, even if the perpetrator has been in prison for the offence during that time! I feel that those accused of domestic violence should also be represented, so that the alleged victim is not put through the ordeal of being cross-examined by the person of whom they are most afraid
You can follow Sarah on Twitter @rahrah_1978