For Richard Hazell, standing up for those who have difficulty standing up for themselves is in the blood.
Richard grew up between Windsor and Slough. His Quaker father was a teacher who tried to start a Middle Thames branch of the Howard League for Penal Reform.
His mother was a voluntary probation officer in Slough who helped to start a group for prisoners’ wives, and his barrister brother wrote a respected critique of the Bar called The Bar on Trial.
Richard himself studied Law at Kent University from 1971 to 1974, and it was during those studies that he became aware of law centres - organisations providing legal help to people who might otherwise have been denied it because of prohibitive costs.
Richard said: “I approached North Kensington Law Centre to go and work there as a student placement in 1973, and they said yes.
“It was an amazing experience - here were these young lawyers doing radical law in a former butcher’s shop on Golborne Road, and next door was a music shop with a speaker outside on the street, blasting out reggae all day long, and there was me aged 20, writing letters to the DHSS or horrible landlords or something.
“I thought this was just fantastic. I’d found a career I really enjoyed; it was radical and it was fun. Compared to private practice, which I did two years of from ‘75 to ‘77, it was absolutely wonderful, and the rest is history.”
Of Richard’s 50 years working at law centres, 41 were spent at Wiltshire Law Centre in Swindon.
In half a century of helping people negotiate officialdom in the form of everything from Government agencies to unfair landlords, he has seen things change - and stay the same.
“The technology that clients have to deal with is much more difficult than it used to be,” he said, “and no longer can people go to an office and talk to someone face to face about a problem.
“The DWP will deny this and say, ‘We have offices you can go to,’ and the council might say the same, but the truth is you don’t get to talk to a decision-maker. They act as conduits to the decision-makers elsewhere. For example, in Swindon the decision-makers about Universal Credit are in Ballymena in Northern Ireland.
“I think this has been aggravated a lot by covid, which closed down the offices of both the support and the statutory agencies who my clients were dealing with.
“Before the pandemic I worked at home for four months continuously, hardly going into the office or seeing anyone, and that method of working has now become standard.”
He added: “It hasn’t really changed much at all, except that the benefit issues are far harder to resolve because it’s now down to Universal Credit rather than the old Housing Benefit.
“In the Housing Benefit system you could talk with local people, you could negotiate with them.
“It’s extremely difficult to deal with or even get a reply from someone in the Ballymena service centre.
“You have to take things to tribunal more and it takes longer, whereas in the old days it was much easier to resolve local issues.
“The other change is the rise of the private rented sector, and the no-fault evictions of Section 21 have made for a much crueller housing system.
“And also housing associations are now much more keen to try to obtain outright possession orders.
“I sometimes think that they really don’t care whether they house people or not; they are businesses, there to make money.”
Richard’s achievements range from countless thousands of people brought comfort and relief to a filing cabinet bulging with voluntary sector organisations he has helped on their own journeys to bring comfort and relief.
He readily admits that he will miss his work at Wiltshire Law Centre, which he joined in 1981, immensely, but he is far from done with helping people. In Newbury, near where Richard lives, is a breakfast and lunch club, which Richard attends and helps people who share their troubles with him.
“I ask the questions and they open the floodgates, basically!”
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