I wanted to write a book about civil law. Just about everyone, I reckoned, has an idea what the inside of a criminal court looks like. They can see in their mind’s eye the Victorian oak-panelling, wigs, a judge robed. Civil courts, by contrast are much less familiar. The ceilings may be low, the barristers dress in business suits, but there is every bit as much at stake for the people I represent. My typical housing client is someone faced with the immediate threat of losing their home; my employment clients are fighting for the right to look back on their working lives with dignity.

Employment and housing law are heard in different courts, by different judges, applying different principles. But the gap between these two ideas is always breaking down. Since the pandemic started, all sorts of voices have been warning against the risk of mass evictions when the lockdown ends. Ministers have changed housing law: altered the procedure rules, banned evictions. And yet the reason why people are behind with their rent is that in the first three months of the pandemic the number of people claiming Universal Credit rose from two to six million. Countless numbers of people had lost their jobs, that is why their homes were at risk. You cannot keep people safe in their homes unless you also make it harder to dismiss them from their jobs.

Jobs and Homes is about relationships. I describe both the good and the bad, even what it’s like to tell a client that their case is simply so weak that it does not have enough means to qualify for legal aid. That assessment goes against the ethical values of our profession. It’s not our job to judge our client’s cases. But as a civil legal aid practitioner you’re required to make that call.

I write about the relationships we have with our solicitors, with opposing counsel, and with judges. When I was a baby barrister, I could hardly see anyone else in the courtroom. I was so worried about my own performance that I couldn’t look beyond my own shoes. But the longer you’ve been a barrister the more you notice that your solicitor is frightened of catching COVID if she has to take the tube to prepare a bundle, or that the judge herself is only just back from sabbatical.

I wanted to write a book about a year of a barrister’s life. I was three months in when the pandemic struck. That means that the book is about the lockdown. It describes online hearings. Many of us enjoy the flexibility of remote hearings – in all sorts of ways they are a boon. But they also carry risks. This has been especially important in housing where many cases are decided at interim hearings or in appeals. The client doesn’t give evidence. In telephone or remote hearings, they can simply disappear. Their voices are muted; to save bandwidth, the cameras filming them are switched off.

Throughout, I ask myself if judges became more understanding under COVID of my clients and their often-chaotic lives. Even this government has committed itself to certain legal reforms which will make the lives of millions easier – in housing, for example, the abolition of section 21, which currently permits ‘no fault’ evictions of private sector tenants. But there are also pressures tending to reduce justice: the continuous erosion of legal aid, the closure of physical courts, funding cuts to the Ministry of Justice. I hope I have written a book which any civil barrister could give to their friends or families and say: this is what we do, this is why access to justice matters.

An extract from Jobs and Homes: Stories of the Law in Lockdown (Legal Action Group: 2021).

In the second week of January, I represented for the second time a tenant called Ronald. The last time I had represented him, Ronald told me how he had sailed to England in the 1960s from Johannesburg to help his friend Sid James, and through him found work as a cameraman on the Michael Caine film, Zulu. His first circle of London acquaintances included the actress Hattie Jacques with whom Ronald fell briefly, gloriously, and unrequitedly in love.

After that, he had worked as a lorry driver. ‘I’m 62, I need to get back to it,’ he said, and I did not have the heart to tell him that he was a whole decade older than he had just said. Ronald had been an alcoholic for 20 years, ever since his son died in an accident while visiting his mother. For the last seven years he had given all his love to a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Guinness. Ronald was not able to walk his dog as much as he needed, and Guinness barked all through the night. The other tenants demanded Ronald’s eviction. Before I was instructed, a judge had ordered possession against him but suspended it on terms that Ronald rehouse Guinness.

I was asked to represent Ronald for the first time at an eviction hearing. The landlord complained that my client had breached the order suspending possession. But he would not, or could not, give up on his dog. ‘I love him,’ Ronald said. ‘If you take Guinness, it will be like taking me out in a body bag.’

Two friends were at court with him, Anthony, and James. Ronald’s solicitor, Sue, offered the court an undertaking to remove the dog herself and take it to his friend Anthony’s home. This was a piece of bravery on her part. If the undertaking was breached (for example, if Ronald refused to let her move Guinness from his home), the landlord could have brought Sue back to court. A judge might even have jailed her.

Sue spent the next few hours hunting for the dog beginning at the flat where Guinness was supposed to be, searching through Ronald’s friends’ homes until she found the dog. Once Guinness was located, it turned out that the occupant of the flat had lost his keys and locked himself out. Ronald’s friend James found a stepladder, but the ladder was too short. The 5pm deadline was minutes from being breached.

For months, I had been telling people Ronald’s story. It ended with a victory: Guinness was moved. He was placed in Anthony’s care where Ronald could visit him. Sue and I had saved Ronald’s home. His case was not supposed to come back to court.

In January, however, the landlord had again applied for eviction. Despite all of Sue’s and Anthony’s best efforts, Guinness was back living with Ronald.

As for Ronald, he was barely able to turn his face and speak to me. His clothes were dishevelled, his face shrunken. His hair hung wildly down.

I asked him whether it was true that Guinness had returned.

‘Why does he have to go?’ Ronald said. ‘I’ve had him since he was a pup.’

I told the judge the story of Ronald’s life – how vulnerable he was.

The problem was that we were before the same judge who had ordered possession. He had heard it all before. ‘This is a difficult case,’ he said, before rattling through a two-minute judgment ordering Ronald’s eviction.

Afterwards, Sue tried her hardest to keep up with Ronald. He was an old man; in principle the local authority should have rehoused him, but it refused: blaming Ronald for the complaints about Guinness and the loss of his home. While the council made its excuses, it became harder and harder to take any instructions from Ronald. He barely talked. He spent his days sleeping on a sofa in his friend James’s flat.

James tried to look after Guinness, but one night the dog ran off. He was found, safe and well, but a new home had to be found for him.

As for Ronald, he complained of stomach cramps and was admitted to hospital. He was worn down by grief and misery; he did not leave the hospital alive.