Introducing our newest solicitor in CLAO Highland & Islands

Simon Leigh has been working as a solicitor in the Inverness office of the Civil Legal Assistance Office since March 2019. He tells us a bit about his background, why he came to work for CLAO and how he has found his first year with us. 

It may sound lofty to say you applied for a job because of the appeal of enabling people to exercise their legal rights by overcoming disadvantages and barriers.

But in Simon Leigh’s case that was exactly what attracted him to a solicitor post with the Civil Legal Assistance Office (CLAO) in Inverness.Simon Leigh CLAO Inverness

Now a year into the role he’s had plenty of time to find out if the ethos of the network of solicitors and support staff employed by the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) rings true.

“Without a doubt. The rewarding aspect of being a casework solicitor with CLAO is making a difference to people’s lives,” said Simon.

“The kinds of cases we take on mean that more often than not you are assisting a person through a bad time in their life.

“They can be facing eviction or their children may have been removed from their care.

“By giving them independent advice about their options and using the legal remedies available we allow people to achieve the best outcome that they can in their particular situation.”

It all began with volunteering experience as a law student

Simon entered law as a mature student at the University of Stirling aged 28. During his law degree he volunteered for a small charity. It assisted disabled people with a range of issues, predominately benefit claims, appeals and upper tribunal appeals. 

“I found this very rewarding,” he said.

Simon was a representative for the charity in an appeal which resulted in changes being made to the PIP decision maker’s handbook, and as a result was mentioned by a minister in the House of Lords. 

From student volunteer to CLAO solicitor

Simon’s route to CLAO Inverness started with him working about as far outside the Central Belt as is possible. He spent two years as a trainee solicitor in Shetland, working with a small rural firm.

His caseload related to family law matters but he also gained experience in children’s hearings, defending housing cases, debt recovery/sequestration, residential conveyancing, and guardianships/Powers of Attorney.

A year later he gained his restricted practising certificate and from then on was regularly appearing in court: “The majority of my clients were legally aided and often supported by, or referred to us, by Women’s Aid.

“I gained more experience in dealing with people who were living through different types of difficult life situations and enjoyed being able to help them with their legal problems.”

Once qualified Simon spent a short time working in commercial property for a large firm. He soon found this was not for him: “My previous experience was linked to litigation and I found that I missed being able assist people with their difficult problems in this way.”

A supportive environment

On joining CLAO Simon spent his first month working from CLAO Edinburgh’s office within the Scottish Legal Aid Board’s headquarters. This allowed him to work alongside experienced housing specialist solicitors and gain more training and experience in housing law, including defending eviction proceedings.

He also met various SLAB staff and found out about what they do and how their role interacts with his.

“The experience I got here gave me a good foundation for the casework I was allocated when I started in the Inverness office in April 2019,” he said.

“My new colleagues were very supportive and were always open to any questions I had.

“Their vast experience was a resource which was always on hand if I was unsure about how to proceed or simply had a question about something.”

Simon also had the opportunity of shadowing various types of cases that he hadn’t done before, including a mental health tribunal.

Inverness – a vibrant place to live and work

Simon’s move to Inverness coincided with the tail end of heat wave. Quite a change after two years in Shetland where it was rarely warmer than 16C.

“Inverness felt like a sauna,” he said “There is pretty much everything you could want here - apart from IKEA. The pace of life is more relaxed than living in a big city and some of the finest countryside in Scotland is on your doorstep.

“The Highlands in general are a vibrant place to live, with Inverness one of the fastest expanding cities in the UK, if not Europe.

“Although Inverness might appear to be ‘a long way north’, the good transport connections mean it feels just up from the Central Belt.”

CLAO’s varied caseload

If Inverness’ offerings are varied that chimes with Simon’s caseload. He’s had cases involving everything from housing and homelessness to public family law (eg children’s hearings & permanence), debt and some mental health related work.

“I have come across some very interesting cases, particularly in terms of issues surrounding disability discrimination and equalities,” he said.

“This is an area of law I had touched on during my traineeship, but in a different context, an Employment tribunal, not defending antisocial behaviour orders and social landlord eviction actions.

“I have found this area particularly interesting as it expands on and allows me to develop my expertise in the sort of arguments I initially became interested in when I was working a charity volunteer.”

Interesting and rewarding

Now that he’s a year into his role in Inverness Simon said the job has more than matched his expectations: “The wide variety of casework means that no day is the same.

“You never know what’s just around the corner and what is supposed to be a quiet day can become interestingly busy in the blink of an eye.

“On top of this is the rewarding nature of the work I am undertaking by helping vulnerable people, who often would not have received help if CLAO were not there.

“There is certainly never a dull moment in the office. I’ve also been able to appear in the majority of the courts across the Highlands. Being able to visit some beautiful places for work is just an added bonus.”