A BADD day

I hadn’t thought I’d be doing a BADD post this year but the timing was impossible to ignore. As some twitter followers will have seen, I absolutely lost it on Wednesday evening after a conversation with my boss. I tweeted a full on screaming tantrum against him and against disablism in the legal profession (in my paticular case, predominantly arising out of the long hours culture but the need for a secretary is also increasingly frowned upon as unnecessary expenditure) and my experience of it. I can’t tell you how much physical pain I was in at the time of that rant. I was quivering with it. I’d been pushing myself to the brink of collapse over a period of months when my boss started a conversation (in the presence of another colleague) about formally increasing my hours. As much as anything, I think that after so publicly losing it and criticising my boss, it seems important to clarify what happened next equally publicly. I’ve since deleted the tweets because of my subsequent conversation with him.

I didn’t lose my temper then and there. I didn’t say much at all because my mind was racing as I was thrown back to all the things that had happened in the past. His tone wasn’t rude or threatening but he was asking me to commit to something that had been too much for me in the past. In nearly three years in this job, I’ve had one sick day and that wasn’t even connected to my back but on my old working hours it was rare to even get through a month without sick time because I was simply trying to do too much. I didn’t just see red. I felt overwhelming panic. I was already in so much pain. How could he ask this of me? People can be quite scathing over the issue of triggers and trauma but later I realised that I am still traumatised at a fundamental level by what went on in my last firm. The bullying and threats, the disbelief no matter how much medical evidence I produced, the criticism of my character. And most of it was delivered in “reasonable”, if patronising, tones. At one point six years ago I called the Samaritans. I wasn’t suicidal but I felt utterly worthless because I was being told I was. Pain Concern were supportive too but ultimately, after I finally got the courage to stand up for myself, demand the firm order an independent assessment from the Occupational Health team and put up, shut up or fire me and get sued, I ended up seeing a therapist to try to piece myself back together and I was still left doing too many hours.

I am a solicitor. It’s part of my identity. It’s not just a job to me, even though one partner seemed convinced I was a dilettante playing at having a job (seriously?? My parents are not that well off!). It’s a vocation and thank god for that because that keeps me going. They broke me and it didn’t stop hurting. It was made worse by the fact I’d worked there my whole career. Why couldn’t they see me as I am? Why couldn’t they see the determination and passion for my work that got me out of bed in spite of the pain? Why couldn’t they see how honest I am? On one level, I know now that they could see those things. They were threatening other people, unbeknownst to me, at the same time. It was two years before I discovered that in one particular instance, they’d been trying to manipulate me using my guilt and fear of losing my job, while at the same time pulling colleagues in and threatening them but without the shadow of discrimination. My disability was a stick to beat me with. On another level, I still believe them. I still feel that I’m worth less than the next solicitor, despite being more talented than most.

I know I’m predisposed to thinking if something has happened in one way once, it will happen again. Knowing that doesn’t change it. Three years, almost to the day, after the Occupational Therapist asked me:
“did a solicitor complete this form?… because they didn’t tick the box asking if you have a disability”
(“Yep. An employment lawyer”
“They don’t believe I have a disability”
“…but it’s obvious that you have a…I’ll answer the question anyway, shall I?”
“Yes please!”),
I joined my current firm on the basis of a three day week. I explained my disability without having to give as much excruciating detail as some interviewers expected. There were a few teething problems but on the whole, they were respectful and I started to feel like a human being and not as a partner in my previously firm had once introduced me, “The One With The Back”. But the fear was there.

At first, I stuck to three days. Then I increased my hours for two to three weeks while a colleague was on holiday and dropped back down again. Then business started booming and I started doing more. Most often, I spend an hour or so drafting at home in my pyjamas first thing on my rest days and drop tapes off for my secretary so I can review them the next day. Some weeks there’s no need but I might have a long stretch of a couple of months where I do that on every rest day. I also frequently work until 6.00pm and sometimes 7.00 or later. If I didn’t have an excellent secretary who is dedicated, interested and has just the right amount of initiative, it would be harder but, fortunately I do.

The day after that conversation, I went in on my rest day and talked to my boss. It probably did me good to vent so much on Twitter the night before and a couple of people, together with my mum, helped get me to the point of going in to talk to him (thank you to them). I’d slept incredibly badly because of the pain and, having woken up at 5.30 with my lower back in desperate need of a walk, as well as the mid and upper back and shoulder pain I’d gone to bed with, I decided to go in first thing…just as soon as I’d drunk a few pints of coffee and stood under hot water for half an hour.

My biggest worry wasn’t that I’d fly into a rage. It was that I’d start shaking and become incoherent. I really don’t do confrontation well. I explained that I’m aware I’m an unusually private person in an office where a number of people talk a lot about medical issues and that I’m concerned that may give the impression I’m “fine”. On the contrary, being in pain 24/7, I decided quite some time ago that there’s no point talking about it. It’s always there. It’s an absolute given. So what’s the point? Then I explained I’m actually at breaking point after a long period of overdoing it and that I’m worried about him asking me to formally increase my hours.

He was shocked and mortified. It turns out it he never wanted to pressure me to do more and it just came out wrong. I told him very briefly in general terms what happened at my last firm and about one specific incident and he was horrified. He said he really didn’t mean to make me feel like that was happening again and that, if anything, he was trying to say the opposite. He’s been worried I’ll think the partners are taking the piss by not paying me for all the extra hours I do over my contracted three days because I don’t claim them all and wanted me to know he’d recommend changing my contract and paying me more as pure salary if I want to formally increase my hours by a couple of hours a week because I seem to work at least that so often. If I don’t want to do that, we talked about how not all overtime directly leads to fee income (eg because my secretary’s was off for over half of April) and that I can claim more than I have been. He also admitted (without prompting) that he’s personally been taking the piss a bit by assuming I’ll be in at some point every day and asking me to have meetings with him when I’ve only popped in to drop tapes I’ve done off for my secretary and asking me for urgent work when my secretary’s been off so that I ended up having to do all the typing myself.

We didn’t need to talk for very long to clear the air and then I left for a proper day off. I’m glad I decided to talk to him. It probably was good to tell him even one incident of what went on in my last firm. I came to this firm off the back of years of suspicion, bullying, threats and atos-style assessments and I haven’t felt that my job is safe here. I went into absolute panic when he said “formally increase your hours” because I’d been forced to put myself through that before. He gets that now and he probably gets me a bit better too.

On Friday, he couldn’t wait to push me out the door at the end of the day, saying he didn’t want to see me stay late again. He saw me pushing work in my bag to take home but (as I’ve said to him before), I often work best first thing so I’d rather it’s there so I can do it if I’m up to it. So far I haven’t been (maybe if I didn’t feel the need to write this to clear his name, I would!).

There are lessons in all this. I now know I’m far from over what went on in the past, although being in the state I was in in terms of pain and exhaustion probably amplified my panic response. And now I know that I am trusted here and that the energy I put in is appreciated. I had thought that was the case, which was another reason why suddenly hearing something that sounded like the opposite hit me so hard. In many ways, I’m a great employee to manage because I’m never any trouble and never even mentioned in the vicinity of trouble but this is something that has been lying under the surface. I didn’t want to talk about the past with him before. Judging by other people and the things I know they talk about, that may actually be quite unusual but I suspect quite a lot of disabled people come to new jobs quietly carrying the lingering shame imposed on them by other people in the past. Maybe the good employers who want to do right by us need an awareness that that’s a possibility, even though we’ve chosen not to say it, but there are good people out there who want to do right by us and, ultimately, that’s why I decided to blog this year. It was a misunderstanding and my boss deserves to be acknowledged as one of those good people.


Unwanted Attention

I travel alone to and from and around London pretty frequently. I wrote a post on 26th March 2014, the day after the “conversation” below happened. It sat in my drafts because I wasn’t convinced it was worth saying out loud. Today it’s suddenly relevant.

The original draft post from 2014 follows:

As I said in another post, I don’t let fear of a small minority of men stop me. I’m also basically a friendly and polite person (sweariness aside). I’m not an idiot though and have had a few unpleasant incidents over the years. Being assertive enough to get across the message “fuck off” without riling someone up isn’t easy and if anyone reading this has advice, I’m happy to hear it.

The scene: on the last train, phone in hand, tweeting. Usually I have my ipod on as much to discourage people from talking to me as for the music but for some stupid reason I don’t have it on now. A man walks down the carriage and sits in a seat on the opposite side of the carriage. He’s holding a can of lager. He starts talking at me as if we’re half way through a conversation about an obnoxiously loud kid who just got off the train with his mates. I stare at my phone. He tells me the kid’s a “cunt and a killer” who got his mates to beat up lager guy. I say nothing, although it’s obvious I heard because you don’t hear something like that without reacting. I tweet what he just said to show I’m busy, don’t want to talk.

He asks a direct question: “What station was that?”
This time I look up: “Cuffley, I think.”
“Are you sure?”
“I looked at the sign because they were all getting off.”
“He used to live in Letchworth. I live in Letchworth. Where do you live?”
No avoiding it because I’m stuck on the damn train with him…”Letchworth”.
“I live in Jackmans. Where do you live?”
“Further in.”
“The Lordship?”
Why not? I don’t but I want him to stop asking questions. “Yeah.”
“You’re rich then.”
“Money can’t buy happiness”
“No. Money doesn’t buy happiness. Love. Love making. They’re happiness”
Shit. Shit. Shit. Leave me alone! You’re having a go at me for having more money than you and you just mentioned sex. Fuck off! “—”
“What you going to do with all that money? Pass it on to your kids?”
“Uh. Is there a toilet back there?”
“No. You could piss in the aisle. Some do.”
“—” I look down at my phone to see if getting off at Stevenage could get me home to get away from him. I discover that the train terminates at Hitchin and I’m not comfortable about getting off the train with him around
“So what do you do then?”
This is where I do something really stupid. I tell the truth: “Lawyer”
“Oh well you’re fucking loaded then”
“No. I’m better off than you but I take home less than a teacher.”
“Legal Aid lawyers. Raking in millions”
“I’m not a legal aid lawyer and most of them earn less than the national average salary. It’s the very rich getting richer under this fucking Government.”
“You work in London then?”
“Money can’t buy happiness. Just love”
“I think I’m going to look for a toilet, in case.”
“There isn’t one”
“Just in case”
So I move up two carriages and sit quietly listening to a teenage drama in my carriage for a little while before: “no toilet, is there? Told you”
“There’s a quiet spot at Hitchin station you can squat”
“So. You might know my lawyer. Legal aid lawyer. Helped me out with some bother”
“Dunno. Lot of lawyers around”
“Yeah. Yeah. You must know him. His office is…”
“Sorry. I don’t.”
“Getting the coach from Hitchin?”
“Ohhh. You’ll get a taxi. You can afford it. Can I share?”
“Why not? We’re both going to the Lordship.”
“No. We’re not.”
“We are.”
“No. You’re going to the Jackmans and I don’t live in the Lordship”
“But you said…”
“I lied. I’m alone and you’re a total stranger who wants to know where I live”
“Stuck up bitch”

scene ends

Would a women only carriage have helped in a situation like that? I doubt it. Late at night I’ve often seen people smoking on trains for heaven’s sake. And there were other men in the carriage and no one suggested to him I might want to be left alone. The only thing that would help is transport police patrolling the late trains.

I take the point that women shouldn’t have to be segregated or do anything differently at all to accommodate the fact that men harass them but my perspective on that is that if you want to do something about it now and not at some hypothetical future date when men start respecting women’s rights to go about their lives without being harassed or assaulted, put more staff on public transport. Sometimes strangers will step in to help someone travelling alone but it’s dangerous trust a woman’s safety to the assumption that they will. It’s also unreasonable to expect women to travel in packs so they can intervene on behalf of other women they’ve never met if a man enters a carriage. As I said, there were men around during the incident below and they did nothing. If I was in a women only carriage with one other woman would it be fair to expect her to intervene? I’d be terrified of getting involved if the shoe was on the other foot and he was talking to someone else because if there was one thing almost guaranteed to set him off, it would have been being challenged.

Jeremy Corbyn is right that there is a problem. He’s suggested a possible solution. He said he will listen to women and wants to know what they think. That’s what I think. It’s all very well to say it shouldn’t happen anyway but that guy openly told me he’d had problems with the police. If it’s a betrayal of feminism to say I want more staff/transport police on trains, I’m ok with that because here in the real world telling myself I have a right to be left alone doesn’t help when faced with an actual person like that.

Surgery Tip for Women

An odd choice after my long hiatus you may think but June brings the anniversary of my spinal fusion. It brings back a lot of memories I don’t want to write about but as my mind drifted over it, I remembered something important to women going in to surgery.

It’s not uncommon for the physical trauma of surgery to cause a woman’s period to start unexpectedly. I know someone it happened to and I wish I’d thought to tell her this. I was told to come off the pill beforehand and thought to myself (not even knowing about the disruption surgery can cause at the time) that I simply couldn’t handle the prospect of being on my period while in hospital and with an abdominal wound. I said this to my gp and she gave me tablets you can take for up to three months to stop your period completely. It was eight years ago but I’m 99% sure it wasn’t the progesterone only pill and that they weren’t a contraceptive. If you’re going in for abdominal spinal surgery you won’t need one during that 12 weeks anyway though!

On the rare occasions I’ve learned something useful from my own experiences, I feel I should share them and my advice to any woman going in for surgery is to ask your gp for this. The woman I mentioned before was in for knee replacement so I think it’s probably safest to ask about it whenever you’re having major surgery, regardless of which part of your body is involved. It’s one less thing to worry about.

Disability Confident

#disabilityconfident gave me pause. It made me reflect on where I am now. I spent a decade from the age of 17 fighting my own suspicion that what was wrong with me was mostly that I was just weak. I was making a fuss about nothing. I had a gp during my first few working years who would just ask me how stressed I was at work every time I saw him. Underneath my efforts to get a diagnosis and treatment there was always the sense that maybe I was just weak and lazy. I didn’t, not for one second, see myself as disabled or becoming disabled during that period.

Things changed in 2004. They got dramatically worse in fact. I couldn’t work any more. Suddenly being disabled became something I had to admit to in the course of battling for the insurance monies which would save my home and my job (the DWP didn’t give me any trouble at all over Incapacity Benefit). I wasn’t at all confident about having a disability. I was called faking, lazy and self indulgent over the next nine years, even after returning to work after a three year absence having taken the risk of racking up thousands in debt to skip the long waiting list and have surgery privately. Fortunately, there were also healthcare professionals telling me the opposite. I had serious problems. I was working as hard as anyone could to deal with them. And, ultimately I had to accept it too, this was a permanent state of affairs. When my employers were the ones challenging my work ethic, I also had the praise of clients, who had no idea what was going on in the background and thanked me for the quality of my work, my diligence and my care for them. They never knew most of my self esteem was bound up in them at that point.

It was to be three years before I learned that the worst series of meetings, at the height of the financial crisis when fee income had dropped across the whole firm, mirrored meetings with other people in my department. My disability was a stick they used to “motivate” me, while other solicitors were also being threatened in other less personal ways. I found out because they stuck to this “management technique” and I ended up talking about it with a colleague. It was only when he filled me in on what had happened to the others that I found the courage to say that I was out performing full time employees and they’d better be ready to let those people go if they came after me. They’d been right, you see. I’d felt guilty and inadequate that I couldn’t put more hours in. Their focus on my disability isolated me.

Almost a year to the day ago I found out I was being laid off in the course of a merger (ironically the redundancy process was the first time I ever heard my employers openly acknowledge that I had a disability at all!). I’d just written a long, statistic heavy blog post on the challenges facing disabled jobseekers. All of us, regardless of qualifications, are at a massive disadvantage in the jobs market. By that time I’d spent years pushing myself to the point of collapse, just to keep my job. I’d tried and failed to find a new one after being directly threatened with dismissal for my “lifestyle choice” of needing to work part time. My routine a year ago was completely geared to surviving until I could change that one thing: my job. I had nothing left over. Quality of life is such a relative concept. For some people even breathing unaided is impossible. For me, the single biggest impact of my disability was that a “work/life balance” became impossible.

Last Spring I wrote a post about the advantages of being temporarily unemployed with chronic back pain. It was stressful, don’t get me wrong, but my body was absolutely desperate for the three month break I got and although I only had statutory redundancy, it was enough to see me through that period. I did find a new job and it’s one where I’m working hours I can cope with. Nobody in my new job’s suggesting I’m overstating the problem. Nobody’s asking for more than I can give. Nobody’s criticising me for having a life outside the office. There’s no guilt or shame attached. Physically it didn’t all fall into place immediately – when I started the new job I had a long commute for the first few months, along with very little secretarial cover – but the three month rest beforehand helped.

Then one day I realised my life had changed immeasurably. I have energy for more than just work. It’s a confusing luxury to actually get to make lifestyle choices. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this new power over my own life yet but at least I can see now that I have some. I’ve realised how much my life has changed for the better, if I let it. And emotionally? I’m finally in a place where it’s fine to just be me. I don’t have to talk about it or justify it. Having a disability isn’t part of a battle anymore. It’s just something that is. It’s taken for granted by the people around me and that is what makes it possible to be confident about it.

Keeping a Pain Diary (there’s an app for that)

I’ve always been quite negative about the idea of keeping a pain diary because it makes me to focus on pain I’d rather do my best to ignore. I can’t really but I keep my conscious focus on what I’m doing and try to bury the creative similes to describe what I’m feeling. I don’t want to checklist all the various bits of my body to identify each part that hurts and label the type and level of pain. I don’t think we should be too focused on the pain but that’s not to say I’m a shining example of how to manage chronic pain because I tend to shove the awareness of it to one side and overdo things.

Sometimes it’s important to keep a record though. When new problems start or old ones worsen, it’s important to work out exactly what hurts, what exacerbates it and what eases it. Anyone with chronic pain will always be asked to fill in a pain questionnaire by doctors in the diagnostic and post-procedure/surgery phase. Some women may also want to track hormonal variations from month to month for a little while in case there’s a pattern (it’s very common for perception of pain to increase around your period but I’m a bit more prone to joint instability for a few days each month too – seeing patterns prevents the worry that something new might be happening). Trying a new treatment or being put on new medication can be a reason to track both the pain and other issues – throughout the 18 months I was on pregabalin because a well meaning consultant thought “if all else fails it’s fibro” (in fairness to him, what the hell was the health insurer thinking when it sent me to a knee expert??) I had a host of near daily symptoms like blurred vision, slurred speech, mixing up my words, an odd kind of brain stutter and fatigue which turned out to be “silent” migraines being triggered so frequently by the drug (which did nothing for the pain). It can also be important to keep records if you’re in a dispute over your condition with employers, insurers or the DWP. I didn’t share the records but they helped me to be clearer in what I was saying.

There’s also an argument there that if you’re bad at remembering to take rest breaks and change position, consciously tuning into the pain for the diary helps with that. I’m like that. I wouldn’t recommend much about the way I work but I do have one bit of advice for office types with similar problems to mine. Don’t have a printer in your office. Seriously. If you have to collect printed emails from a communal printer regularly, you’re giving your back a series of mini breaks it might not get otherwise.

I’m one of those people who lets emails about admin tasks at work gather dust while I focus on things I find more interesting and more important so the admin involved in recording my pain seems like too much hassle. But there’s an app for everything. I found a flexible app (Manage My Pain) which allowed me to list all the weird symptoms and input my own range of descriptive terms. I could also add my own exacerbating and alleviating list, which was really handy. To make life easier, if one day’s problems are much like the next, there’s even a repeat button on the app. The app also generates professional looking reports from the data inputted if you need them. If you might show the data to anyone, I’d say to be careful about descriptive terms though because they’re taken into account by doctors and assessors, who might see psychosocial problems if your descriptive terms are too inventive. One of mine was that it felt like broken glass was being ground into my spine but fortunately I eventually found the right doctor, who rid me of that one by killing the nerves to the joints (although I didn’t use that description, even though it was most accurate way I had of describing the pain to him). That highlights another advantage to periodically keeping a pain diary. By paying attention to the different types of pain I could see past all the surrounding muscle pain to be able to confidently tell him I was sure that the joints were damaged so I was able to separate out and treat one of several problems. In my case, that made an enormous difference to my overall wellbeing.

After playing with the free version (which limits you to reports on the ten most recent entries – not much use if you make multiple entries to reflect different types of pain in different parts of the body and non-pain events), I decided it was worth the £3 to download it. The fact that using an app feels cooler (and has a familiar time recording style feel to my solicitor brain) made the whole thing seem like less of a hassle.

If you’re diagnosed, have stable symptoms and a stable drug regime, I don’t personally see much point in keeping a pain diary. Once you know your limits and what it takes to minimise the pain, it’s just a case of living with them for me but if you’re going to use one, I’d recommend an app. I haven’t updated the one I used lately so I don’t know if it’s developed any niggles but it’s definitely worth giving the free version a go.

Happy Ending


Hopefully this will be my last post about Begley’s thyroid. Hopefully because he’s just had his fifth weigh in and blood test and the results are in. He’s comfortably in the normal range for his blood test. He was also within normal at the last test in November but the big news is that his weight has bounced back to 5.51kg, which I think is Begley’s ideal weight. He doesn’t need to be weighed and tested for another four months and with any luck that’ll just be a formality. His stomach seems to have settled down on the current dose so we just carry on with the tablet routine.

I could just have said that on Twitter but I decided on a post because I’ve got a story about another cat for you. I mentioned in Little Hero that I know someone whose cat was diagnosed hyperthyroid and she completely refused to take the tablets. They tried various strategies but nothing worked and everyone involved thought surgery wasn’t an option for her. It wasn’t long before she was so sick she had to be put down. I was talking to him again and he’d remembered a story from years ago. He had friends with cat who’d recently been diagnosed with diabetes. He’d agreed to cat-sit while they were on holiday, which meant staying in their house because they lived a couple of hours away.

On his arrival, they produced the insulin syringe and explained he’d have to inject the cat every day. He started feeling pretty anxious as he looked at that syringe (I’ve always dreaded the thought of either of my cats being diagnosed with diabetes for the same reason). The cat sounds like he had quite a similar personality to Begley. He was happy and laid back but shy. He only really got along with a small number of people he knew well and his novice catsitter/nurse wasn’t one of them. He just hadn’t spent enough time there. I’d be equally nervous about anyone trying to give Begley tablets in those circumstances.

So, the cat’s owners left and the time for his injection rolled round. His catsitter sat him on his lap and picked up the syringe, expecting the cat to make a run for it. The cat just sat, perfectly still, waiting. He put the needle in. The cat stayed put. He accidentally bent the needle (which must have hurt, surely?). The cat gave him a look but stayed still. Finally he got the injection done. Despite his being a virtual stranger and his initial incompetence with the syringe, the cat came back each day and placidly sat through his injection.

The cat was about Begley’s age when he was diagnosed with diabetes. He lived to 17. Some cats just know. I wish for his sake that his own cat had been one of them. I feel strange about thinking it but I’m relieved it was Begley and not Ciara who was diagnosed with a long term condition. Begley’s always been good about these things but Ciara’s always been a monster. She has to be bundled up in a blanket to be given tablets and squirms to get a paw through the neck hole. She can spit a tablet across the whole width of the lounge and a male vet trying open her mouth to put a worming tablet down her said she has unnaturally strong jaws. If it ever comes to it, I’ll mould her beloved Red Leicester round her tablets and hope for the best.

Vote of no confidence

Some may say that today was the day we ate our own tail. They’ll say the solicitors profession should be united. That we should stand together against a government hell bent on undermining justice. Well, yes and no for me. The vote of no confidence in the Law Society’s strategy to oppose criminal legal aid reforms really has to be looked at in a broader context. We within the profession, and those few who have stuck it out and continued practising in both criminal and civil Legal Aid areas until 2013 in particular, have watched the Law Society losing the war over the past 15 years or so. It wins battles but it has steadily lost the war. I put together a series of links back in April which illustrate this. Added to that is ill will over personal injury reforms and alternative business structures.

228 solicitors voted for a motion of no confidence today. I support their cause, even if I’m not entirely convinced the vote was the best way forward and I should mention again that the Law Society Council is under no obligation to do anything as a result of the vote. Indeed, shortly before it a Law Society spokesman said so, pointing out that even a full postal vote of all Law Society members would be non-binding. The Council decides what happens next, despite the outcome of the vote. The Society’s initial statement responding to the vote was notable for it’s blandness. It’s been followed by a further release “reaffirm[ing] its vow to continue opposing cuts”.

The Law Society represents us (clients have the Solicitors Regulatory Authority, of course) so we expect the Law Society to actually do so, within reason (from time to time I see solicitors suggesting things in the Gazette which would undermine the profession’s ethical obligations to justice and clients). Increasingly, it seems we need it to be more like a trade union. From my perspective there are two main failings in how the Law Society has gone about it over the years.

The first is that it’s failed to tackle the PR problems. This breaks down in two ways: the acceptance of the fact that public opinion determines public policy and how you deliver the message. Lawyers aren’t really that great at this stuff. Some of us prefer to tinker in our ivory towers, desperately clinging to legal practice and trying to avoid being businesses. We tut over advertising campaigns like we’re still in the 19th century. We think it’s enough to be right, without needing to sell the argument that makes us right. Maybe there’s even a hint of snobbery in not wanting to need public support. The Law Society puts its head above the parapet. Of course it does. But it doesn’t do it often enough or effectively enough in the face of the media and even politicians calling us greedy self-serving fat cats. Senior Law Society Council members are capable of sincere and affecting rhetoric. When she was president, Linda Lee brought tears to my eyes at a function (I wasn’t even drinking) and got a standing ovation. Believe me, she had it in her to affect non-lawyers but the Law Society seems to struggle with the concept that it has to take the fight to the public at all.

The second question is whether direct action is the right thing. This has been on the cards for years now and, despite the immediate impact on justice if criminal lawyers go on strike, I’m all for it (just as long as the PR surrounding it is handled properly). It’s the only option left. Shut justice down to prove the point.

Time after time the Law Society has been the Judas goat leading Legal Aid practitioners. The vote of no confidence didn’t come out of the blue. Legal Aid practitioners have trusted the Law Society and the nearer they’re led to the abattoir, the less faith they have. They’ve asked for better PR in the past. They’ve called for strike action in the past. The past 15 years have demonstrated that Legal Aid practitioners shouldn’t have confidence in the Law Society. But that’s also why I don’t agree that heads should necessarily roll. This isn’t about the people on the Council today. It’s about long term strategy. The Law Society hasn’t been listening to its members. If it’s members have to kick it somewhere tender to get its attention, so be it. That doesn’t signal that we’re a divided profession on the principle. It shows that some people in the profession have more of a stomach for a fight than the Law Society. What will be far more detrimental is if the Society ends up speaking against strike action when it comes. I don’t expect resignations. I don’t even want them but I do hope the embarrassment of a vote of no confidence being passed will make the Council listen to the desperation of the members who attended and voted and look at its strategy again.

We’re all human

I read Emily Thornberry’s blog for Huff Post for Human Rights Day with the usual sense of disappointment as she explained what the Human Rights Act has done for victims of crime. Because victims are naturally considered more worthy recipients of rights. Compared to the Tories’ sabre rattling over withdrawal from the European Convention of Human Rights completely, as well as repealing the Human Rights Act, it’s something I suppose but…. The blog feeds into the idea that there are deserving and undeserving people when it comes to human rights. This is the kind of attitude that makes me grind my teeth. Anyone whose rights are infringed becomes a victim in that moment. That’s the point: human rights conventions impose a moral standard which grants rights to all. The UN’s use of the word “universal” isn’t a coincidence for crying out loud. We protect everyone because if we don’t we’re accepting some people have a lower value. We have rights like those related to fair trial to ensure the innocent person and the guilty one both get equal treatment under the law because it’s the right thing to do. Because collectively we have agreed on a high standard of justice, even though individually we might have personal feelings about a case which make us question them a little (and for some people a lot).

Human rights are for all humanity. To me, protecting the rights of even a convicted murderer, terrorist, or rapist does protect me. It protects me simply by saying that everyone, absolutely everyone, is equal under the law and that the State is accountable for it’s actions. That doesn’t just protect my rights. It enables me to live with my society’s values. I look at a country like America with a certain amount of bafflement because I just don’t understand a society that continues to use the death penalty. Ours is a far from perfect society but a commitment to human rights gives people very real rights and remedies and makes us all better for it. Everyone is entitled to human rights such as life, dignity and justice. The fact that it’s not politically convenient to say so in the present climate doesn’t change that fact.

The Power of Images

Every so often, for one reason or another, someone suggests that the flood of shocking images we see may damage our ability to feel empathy. It’s an argument which is particularly popular in relation to images of fictional violence when explanations and excuses for violent actions are being sought but there’s also the question of whether the images presented to us by news media just desensitise us, making us care less rather than making us violent.

After cameras and film cameras were first invented they were often used for war photography, bringing the reality of war into the fashionable salons. War artists can produce extremely powerful images but photography is more immediate and a more trusted way of capturing the imagery of war, although it would be naive to ignore the use of photography for propaganda. Of course we know that photos can be faked but on the whole photos, and later films, are their own monument which keep history alive. There’s no hiding from reality and pretending that these aren’t real people. Without films of concentration camps could we really even believe that people did that to other people? They turn numbers of dead so high that we can barely comprehend them into real people. There’s front line footage which does the same, turning millions of military deaths into millions of dead people.

So much has changed since the early days of photography. I always think of the Viet Nam photo of a group of people running from a napalm attack, with a naked child in the foreground as some kind of turning point where photo journalism got rawer and politically more honest. I decided not to include the photo here but if it doesn’t immediately spring to l mind, you can see it on Wikipedia. And then eventually, after years of tv footage and the switch to colour photos in print, came digital and the availability of images and films streamed online. And then came another event too huge for our minds to process it as real. On September 11, I got back from court to find an email from another trainee with a link. I clicked on it and thought “so what? Another disaster film. Why does she think I’d be interested?” Even once I realised what I was seeing, my mind couldn’t wrap itself around it. Yet later, when the decision was made to publish a photo of an person falling through the air, the horror was humanised. I’ll never forget that photo. For a lot of people it’s the symbol of the human suffering that took place in the Twin Towers. It was a heartwrenching illustration of people who had had all hope stolen from them and realised the only control they had left over their lives lay in the power to decide the manner and timing of their own death. It’s strange. The photo is indelibly etched into my memory so I was surprised to come across an article called The Most Famous 9-11 Photograph No-one Has Seen. Initially, I thought the photo had crossed a line too. Now I see it differently. Now it’s not disrespectful. I see the pathos and think it’s right that we have an image which brings home the real loss that day. On 9/11 this year Twitter was full of businesses tweeting 9/11 themed special offers so I’d say we’ve never needed The Falling Man more. The article is an interesting one and makes another interesting point. 9/11 was only 12 years ago but people didn’t have camera phones and there was no Twitter. Fast forward to last year’s Sandy storm and suddenly instagram and Twitter were full of photos of empty shelves in shops and people taking selfies in darkened homes. If you give people cameras they won’t always record the profound for posterity. Still, images and videos taken by private individuals can add to our understanding of events and even have evidentiary value. An example which springs to mind is the death of Ian Tomlinson in London. They can also confuse things and result in the spread of misinformation, as we saw after the Boston bombing.

The most powerful images of war, terrorist attacks and accidents are the ones which show us a human face. The same could be said of natural disasters. Show a trail of devastation and it’s not quite comprehensible, not quite real. Show the people caught up in it and that changes. People are programmed to relate best to individual stories. We feel more empathy for identifiable people than we do for numbers. I’m sure there are other sources for this but Dan Ariely discussed it in Upside of Irrationality and pointed out that charities show individuals who have been or can be helped by them in their advertising because they know that statistics and generalisations don’t engage people who see the adverts. This clip’s a short discussion of the theory.

The grind of horror seems to keep growing, image after image. Stills and video footage of man made and natural disasters taken with mobiles day after day. It sometimes seems like there are no limits any more. A few years back a local paper here had to apologise after publishing a photo (taken with a camera phone) of a dismembered body at Stevenage train station after someone died on the tracks. Have we become immune? Have images lost the power to shock? There has been more than enough horror to go round recently and that’s what got me thinking about all of this. It got me thinking about how images are delivered to us and whether the medium we see them on affects our response.

In August someone I follow suggested following Patrick Kingsley for his coverage of what was happening in Egypt. It was a general suggestion – he didn’t say it to me specifically. I did what he suggested. I looked at Patrick Kingsley’s profile page. Then I opened the photos. Then I sat with tears rolling down my face. I could only stand to look at a few photos before I had to stop. In a strange way, I’m glad images still have the power to shock me that much but a few days later the Syrian chemical attack was on the tv news. Children were writhing, dying and zipped into body bags on screen. I didn’t feel nothing. I felt pity, anger but I didn’t have the same visceral response. Go back in time to another image from Syria: I think it was just before Christmas, after Sandyhook, when many people were tweeting about both things. Simon Ricketts shared a photo on Twitter of a girl in a hospital. Her head was bandaged, at least one of each of her arms and legs was too – the arm was in a cast. There was blood – deep grazes? And she was grinning. I can’t remember what he said in the tweet. I think it was a dig (although probably mildly put because he’s a nice tweeter) comparing her joy, and bravery, to someone else but it’d take forever to find it again. That photo, another Syrian child, hit me hard, hard enough to mention it again now months later. Is there a difference in how images affect me based on the way I receive them? Photos on Twitter are potentially more graphic than tv but not by much these days. An alternative explanation occurred to me. TV is a place of horrors. Even newspaper front pages contain expected horror but a mobile phone? A mobile phone is so much more than a place to look at news. It contains our personal photos and allows us into others’. It holds our families, friends, lovers and pets. It holds scenes of beauty that we snapped in an instant. Through apps like Twitter, Facebook and instagram we share each other’s moments. To some extent, at some internal level, I think a mobile is a “safe” place. It’s like having a photo album with us all the time. Maybe this makes what we see on them more personal somehow. And if it does, I’d have to say that’s a good thing.

Interview with a Job Centre Advisor: sanction targets & corruption revealed

A JCP employee speaks out about practices (particularly sanctions) and leaves me speechless. If he’s right about phasing out Job Centre staff (and it does make sense), I can’t help but wonder what their job options will be when that time comes.


@JobcentreMole is a Job Centre advisor who has taken to Twitter to speak out about the Job Centre’s unfair treatment of people who are claiming benefits. For obvious reasons he is anonymous. I think that what he’s doing is very brave. We did this interview by email. (All emphases are mine).
The Mole says: “I started my career with Jobcentre plus over 15 years ago at such a young age, I have literally done every job at lower (band B) level there is within the Jobcentre. I can assure you my knowledge of Jobcentre Plus is up with the best, I can also assure you I am not alone with my views.” 
Do the management have targets to sanction x number of people, or are your team encouraged to sanction people?

There is 100% no specific target at all, however it is and has been mentioned before that each signer…

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