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So you want to be.... an adults and communities lawyer?

Who: Drew Thompson

Local Authority: Suffolk County Council

Role: Adult and Communities Trainee Legal Executive

I never expected to become a lawyer. My degree was in Microelectronics Systems Design and I had a ten year career in engineering and IT. But then my job in the city ended just two weeks before September 11 and I found myself unemployed in what quickly became an almost non-existent IT job market in the following financial downturn. After a year of no available full-time work, my daughter was born and I then remained at home as her primary carer.

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To do something different, I became a volunteer advisor in the local Citizen’s Advice Bureau. This was my introduction to both the law and to lawyers, as amongst the advisors were several solicitors, a barrister, and a legal executive. I started investigating training when it became obvious that I enjoyed the range and areas of work, and that my transferable skills from engineering were actually a good fit with law; such as problem solving, attention for detail, and a desire to search for the “right” answer within given constraints to the benefit of the client.

As a second career, and with a young child to care for, I chose to study as a legal executive; which I could do locally part-time. A student on the course already worked for Suffolk County Council, and advised of a job for a legal assistant. Whilst that role went to an internal legal department candidate, I was offered their vacated clerical position, and during the next six years I was promoted to a legal assistant role and had the experience of working in most areas across the department.

When I completed my legal executive academic qualifications, I was able to gain my current position within the Adult and Communities team, where I work with three part-time solicitors. I too work part-time, allowing me to continue to spend time during the week with my daughter. Flexible working is a real benefit of Local Government, which I would never have had in the city, and cannot envisage would be so easily accessible in private practice.

The team’s main role is provision of advice to all parts of the council which involve services relating to people, with the exception of child protection matters and the commercial elements of contracts and procurement. Broadly this divides into: adult social services; education law for both the local authority and for schools; and general community services such as disability and asylum seekers. We give advice both on general council policy and specific advice regarding individual service users.

Given the range of legal areas, and the frequency of updates in the legislation, guidance, and case law, the learning curve has been, and remains, huge. Often a matter involves a new or infrequently used legal topic, and therefore close dialogue and supervision between team members is vital to check and share understanding.

Much of the requested advice is initially relatively small and specific, and a response is often needed very quickly. In an education case it could be a headteacher needing help with a difficult parent who has threatened a teacher, or questioning if a parent can change their child’s surname after a relationship breakdown. In social care, it could be a social worker querying if their proposed course of action in supporting a service user is lawful, or a finance officer requesting a legal view of an adult’s financial assessment for their social care.

Whilst there are regular queries concerning the same general issues, these often still require specific legal research, including checking the current statutory guidance, legislation, and case law. However, many of these requests then grow into significant pieces of work. For example, a supposedly simple request to confirm a hospital’s view that the council is liable to fund the residential care of someone due to be discharged, can on notification the person is not a UK national snowball into queries with the UK Border Agency and assessment of their European Convention rights.

In addition to the general advice work, our team also conducts court work. This is primarily in the Court of Protection in cases of vulnerable adults, and the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal for appeals by parents against their child’s statement of Special Educational Needs. However, it has also included civil litigation in the High Court, for example in respect of a claim by a family member that they had a beneficial interest in the property understood to be owned by a person in residential care. We also have an advocacy role in communicating with other councils, for example in respect of joint or cross-border services, or when service users move, or are moved, around the country. Given the potentially very high and long term costs of social care – particularly for residential care for adults with significant assessed needs – there are often legal discussions between councils as to who is liable for these costs, which sometimes result in applications to the Secretary of State for Health for a determination.

In vulnerable adult work, Adult Social Services are often involved in the lifelong support and/or protection of a person who may be lacking mental capacity due to disability, accident, or degenerative disorders such as dementia. On the social worker’s instruction the team can make Court of Protection applications for a ruling on aspects such as where the person lives, who they can have contact with, who is in control of their financial assets, and who can make decisions on the provision for their welfare. Such a case will include legal strategy meetings to assess the grounds for an application, the drafting and serving of court papers, and either advocacy or briefing counsel. As with any such similar work, the ability to work under pressure is required, and the flexibility to respond as the details can quickly change. Also due to the financial constraints a growing numbers of these parties are now representing themselves in the courts, with all the ensuing difficulties this can cause.

In these vulnerable adult protection cases, matters lasting several years are not uncommon, returning to the court repeatedly. This may be due to changes in the adult’s condition, situation, or in the assessed risk, or simply to update the Court. Examples have included where the adult has been forced to move due to their residential home closing, or a family member who had previously been held by the court to be a danger tries to reverse this decision following a change which they believe reduces their risk to the vulnerable adult. In addition, where someone has been identified as an abuser of the vulnerable person, for example by theft of their money, neglect, domestic violence, or emotional abuse, then we can provide legal advice in relation to any referrals to the Police and the criminal cases that may follow.

Whilst some of this work can be planned with reasonable lead times, some matters are very urgent requiring emergency same day and out of hours court applications. For instance a few times each year we receive instructions from an Authorised Mental Health Professional (AMHP) that a person needs to be detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 but their nearest relative, who needs to consent to the detention, has refused. If the person is in imminent danger to themselves and/or others, the council may need to apply that day to displace the relative. Such a situation provides an insight into nature of this work because it engages with members of the public at what is often one of the lowest and most emotionally charged times of their lives.

I enjoy the challenges of this role; the range and pace of work meaning no two days are ever the same. I enjoy the close interaction needed within the team and the relationships built with clients. The breadth of the legal areas and the need to constantly expand and update my legal knowledge is stimulating. Whilst the background stories and issues of the service users can be distressing, I find satisfaction in being part of a council wide team to help those who often cannot help themselves.

Drew Thompson is a trainee legal executive in the Adult and Communities team at Suffolk Legal.

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