By Katya Moran
Balancing looking after my two young children with my work as a freelance criminal solicitor often makes for a surreal day to day experience.
Generally dissatisfied with the dis-connect between legal aid work and the pressure to make a profit, I left my long-term job and decided to freelance while I contemplate what’s next. The work involves representing suspects at the police station and at court when firms need additional cover.
My daughter recently started primary school. Each time I drop her off I am gripped with an anxiety that the teacher is going to notice that I am a fraud – not old or responsible enough to have children at school, surely? Since starting freelancing I am surprised to find this same feeling rearing its head when I arrive at court or at the police station despite having been doing this sort of work for 10 years.
The work is all last minute – I will be knee deep in a teddy bear / unicorn picnic, planning how to sneak vegetables in to dinner when something along the following lines will appear in my inbox: Can you get to Leyton now to deal with a rape? Five minutes of frantic mental arithmetic to decide whether it is feasible… can I get someone to watch the kids? How upset will they be? Is it really worth it for £90? Will my invoice ever actually be paid? I should really take work when it’s there. My reply: Yes, thanks, please let me know the details. The picnic is cancelled. Peppa pig is summoned. My partner is instructed to put his foot down and get back to embrace the challenge of feeding, bathing and getting two angry children to sleep by himself. Like a less exciting version of Superman, I change from peanut butter and felt tip stained scruffs in to my suit and grab my bag of tricks.
Within 45 minutes I am in a consultation room in the custody suite. The room stinks of feet and filth. There is banging and shouting and screaming coming from the cells. The officer in the case is somewhere between abrupt and rude, it feels like I have arrived in hell, I want to click my heels and say “there’s no place like home” until I get there. My client is brought in. Criminal clients are the only reason legal aid lawyers stay in this stinking pit of a job. Never more vulnerable than during that first 24 hours in a cell – sad, frightened and desperate. My client is all of 16 but he looks like a little boy now. And then it is my turn to be grown up again – to talk through the law and procedure so that he can understand, to find a way of communicating with him so that mistakes aren’t made, to listen and advise and think and lead and to prepare this kid, to remain robust and sharp through the interview, to update his distraught or, worse, indifferent mother. And in this moment, it feels like the most important job in the world. Missing bed time with my children is ok because this matters more right now and the fact that I am paid a pittance fades into insignificance as my client and I discuss the allegation in intimate detail – the blood and guts of his life scrutinised in the looming shadow of the bars across the window.
And then I go home. I don’t have colleagues with whom to talk about it and I never find out what happens to my client. The next morning as I stand outside the school, the children run around happily, their futures undecided. I have an uncomfortable awareness that our society does not do enough to protect the most vulnerable ones, and the monumental task of parenting my own weighs heavily.