Thought about becoming a Duty Adviser? – Lea Christiaanson

Our author, Lea

I completed my LLB at City in 2010. The intention was to go directly onto the BPTC (Bar Professional Training Course) but during my third year, I applied for a role as a duty adviser. Following that application, a steep learning curve acquiring relevant law and a six month wait, I was told there was one position available and I should come in for an interview. That interview ended up lasting all day! I shadowed a solicitor and a barrister whilst they carried out their duty advising and was lucky enough to be able to attend four hearings that day to observe. At the end of my rather long interview, I was told that I had the position.

Duty adviser roles are almost exclusively taken by those who already hold rights of audience (there’s more about this later), and I do have to point out that I am quite a bit older than the usual LLB graduate and as a result of that I have a significant amount of relevant experience (and qualifications) that enabled me to take up the duty adviser role and cope with it immediately – i.e. to use a familiar vernacular, I was able to hit the ground running.

What does a duty adviser do?

The role involves interviewing clients, providing legal advice, guidance on possible defences, negotiating with the claimant and representing the client in front of a District Judge (on occasions cases being appealed are heard by a Circuit Judge). The service is only available to defendants in repossession hearings and only on the day of the hearing.

On the surface it may appear that the only knowledge one therefore requires is to do with repossessions, however, the clients come into the court with a variety of inter-connecting problems, many of which have legal repercussions and therefore a broad legal knowledge is required. I am frequently dealing with issues arising from debt, welfare benefits, divorce, child law, immigration, prison, occupation orders and so forth, alongside the obvious areas of law we use on a daily basis, e.g. Housing Acts, Mortgages (Protection from Eviction) Act and relevant case law relating to mortgages, repairs, illegal evictions and so on.

My first supervised case

Repossession fighting! Thanks to boeke for the image

My first supervised case was relatively straightforward. It was a landlord/tenant repossession under s8, grounds 10 and 11, which are both discretionary grounds for rent arrears. Interviewing the client meant that I could establish their income and expenditure and work out with them a reasonable repayment schedule for the arrears, and was able to negotiate with the claimant for the tenant to be given time to pay. We reached agreement, which was a relief, because it meant that appearing in front of the district judge was going to be a bit of a rubber stamping exercise. I forgot to address the judge as ‘sir’, but was prompted by my supervisor, and came out relatively unscathed with a happy client.

Now I’m solo!

My first solo case was booked for a Friday. Repossession hearings on a Friday are unusual, so no duty advisers were going to be available. I was asked if I wanted to take the case and jumped at the opportunity. It was a mortgage repossession. I spent a couple of days reading relevant case law and refreshing my memory on contract and land law.

My client was nervous, anxious and a bit scared and I realised that he considered me to be the professional and the expert and therefore I had to push my own feelings aside and concentrate on getting him the best possible result. My negotiations with the claimant’s agent failed, simply because he refused to negotiate, and scoffed at my suggestion that he might like to take further instructions from his solicitors. He ignored the fact that a large lump sum had been paid off the arrears. His arrogance got him a bit of a dressing down from the judge who pointed out he should have phoned his solicitors for further instruction, which was rather amusing, and my client got away with a suspended possession order on terms.

First rule for any advocate, be it defence or claim, is always be open to negotiation!

I have since racked up well over 200 hearings and am considered a rather fierce negotiator by many of my opponents…I find that somewhat amusing as I’m actually quite soft really!

What skills are required?

First, confidence. I deal with people from a variety of backgrounds, many of whom cannot afford legal advice. In order to be able to deal with the broad range of people who come through the door, one has to be sufficiently confident in one’s own ability to do the job. This is no mean feat and simply cannot be underestimated!

Second, the ability to listen effectively and to communicate in a way that is readily understood by those being interviewed. Sometimes people have capacity issues, or have English as a second, or third, language, or simply do not understand the legal terminology that relates to their case. They are often bewildered, confused, angry or just plain old belligerent, so being able to communicate with them in a way they understand and can relate to is crucial.

Third, common sense and the ability to read people. Duty advisers do not know who their clients are when they walk through the door (unless it is a repeat visit), they do not have the benefit of having had time to read through the paperwork, or research any areas of law that might arise, and nor do they have the benefit of having met the client prior to the moment they walk in. As a consequence, for those without common sense and an ability to read people, getting the correct information out of the client is going to be virtually impossible. Having conducted more than two hundred such interviews, I am under no illusions that even though someone has come in seeking help and advice, they do not always tell the absolute truth. A duty adviser has to have the facts – getting them is another matter.

Legal knowledge essential! Thanks to EUSKALANATO for the image

Fourth, legal knowledge. Now, it might seem strange that I put confidence, communication, common sense and an ability to read people above legal knowledge, but this is purely because without those skills a duty adviser will never get to the point of being able to use their legal knowledge. You need to be able to extract the information in order to formulate the advice and possible defences. The knowledge required is broad based in many areas, and specific in housing and tenant law, contract law, mortgages and disrepair.

As is usual with law in practice, areas often overlap and without a broad based knowledge, a duty adviser would flounder. Your knowledge base has to be strong – if you don’t know the relevant areas of law that can help your client, you’re basically up a creek without a paddle because there isn’t any time to go and look it up before the hearing, you have neither the time, or the resources to hand to do so. Hence you have to have the ability to learn quickly, to do your research in your own time, and keep up to date with changes in case law that may affect your future clients.

Fifth, negotiation skills. As a duty adviser, sometimes the only way to stop a repossession is by negotiating effectively with the claimant to reach an agreement prior to the hearing. This is obviously done under pressure – as is the vast majority of the role, as often there are only 10-15 minutes before a hearing to interview the client and negotiate with the claimant. Negotiation is about striking the right note with the claimant.

Finally, confidence (yes, again!) – this is because you appear before a variety of judges, all of whom will expect you to know what you are talking about. I have frequently been asked ‘Miss Christiaanson, under what law do I have authority to make the order you are requesting?’ If you don’t have an answer, you flounder, you fail. You don’t want to fail – so if you make that mistake once, you certainly won’t make it again!

So how can you get involved in a similar role?

Well, until May of this year, you would have found it virtually impossible to get a role. As indicated earlier the roles are almost exclusively taken by solicitors who have legal aid cover for the service, or barristers acting pro bono. Due to extensive cuts, not only in legal aid, but also in local authority jobs – the effects of which were clearly going to affect the service – I suggested to the manager of the service that perhaps it would be prudent to tap into the source of LPC/BPTC students, many, if not all, of whom would be looking for interesting, relevant and worthwhile legal experience. He agreed. However, the details were left up to me!

This is where my previous qualifications and experience came in handy. I have recruited and trained large numbers of people in the past, and, having spent a year being a duty adviser, I had an excellent idea of precisely the skills required to carry out the role.

Under my own business (I am self-employed), I devised a recruitment and assessment process, which can be found on the duty adviser website. My brief was to not spend any money apart from my time, developing it. It was an incredible challenge and I spent several months drawing up the process and ensuring it was fit for purpose. Since its inception in May 2011 and the appointment of three new volunteers from the first round of interviews/assessments, the process has been changed to accommodate the needs of the court and of the advocates themselves. Full details can be found on the website.

Hit the ground running! Thanks to Ian Murchison for image

Following the first recruitment cycle it became clear that candidates were unable to ‘hit the ground running’ – this was not a reflection on them, more a reflection on the steep learning curve and diverse skills that are required to undertake the role. As a result, I was tasked with creating a bespoke training course, which has now become obligatory for all volunteers to undertake prior to taking up a role. The course will enable the volunteers to hit the ground running and to meet the needs of the service and ensure the smooth running of the court lists. Details of the training can be found on my website.

If you’re interested in becoming a duty adviser, we hold recruitment cycles four times a year, with up to eight roles available each cycle. Volunteers are recruited for a minimum of three months (they have to commit to this) for half a day per week (usually around 4 hours), and will likely do a minimum of 12 cases during their time with us.

It’s not like anything you’ve ever done before

It’s not like mooting, it’s not like FRU, it’s not like being a McKenzie Friend – being a duty adviser is pretty much the closest you can come to being a real advocate because you are, in fact, a real advocate. You appear in court under the supervision of a practising solicitor, as a trainee, and therefore your rights of audience flow from that. You would not otherwise have any rights of audience as an unqualified lawyer. As far as I am aware, we are the only Duty Advice Service that offer this opportunity to those who are not yet fully qualified, so it is a unique opportunity to gain invaluable experience of which I am yet to find any comparison.

Want to join us?

See our website for more information and application dates.

The process is incredibly competitive, and we do have a lot of applicants (our first recruitment cycle attracted more than 50 – 3 were appointed), but if you get through, you’ll find an experience that is second to none and will gain skills in client interviewing, negotiation, and representation – using legal knowledge you already have and learning more as you go along and will quite likely make some fabulous contacts for the future.

Interested? The current application process closes on Friday 5th August. Apply online!

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