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23 May 2022

Where you live shouldn’t determine the services you have access to

Aaliya Seyal
Aaliya Seyal, CEO of Scottish legal charity, the Legal Services Agency, introduces us to LSA's work and shares how she got into the profession.
Strengthening Civil Society

Aaliya is the CEO of the Legal Services Agency (LSA), a Scottish charity providing advice and representation to people who would otherwise not have access to any legal advice. LSA was awarded a grant under our Covid-19 legal action fund for their work challenging the unequal treatment of asylum seekers.

Interview by our Programmes Officer, Jannat Hossain, for our 2021 annual report.

Someone once told me that we are like A&E – people come to us in a crisis, and we help them understand and resolve the problem.

What does the Legal Services Agency (LSA) do?

We are Scotland’s national Law centre, specialising in areas of social welfare law and standing up for the rights of disadvantaged people whose voices have been left behind. We have three areas of work: service provision which includes advice and casework; influencing and policy; and legal education. Scotland has many legal deserts in areas of social welfare law, meaning a lot of people don’t have access to vital legal advice on issues impacting everyday life – this is uncomfortable for me because I don’t think where you live should determine the services you have access to. This is something we have been thinking a lot about and are trying to change through our digital services – adapting as we can to reach people regardless of where in Scotland they are.

What drew you to LSA?

I have been with LSA for just over two years, joining a few months before the pandemic hit, so it went from induction to contingency planning! I always had an interest in the legal voluntary sector and LSA had a great reputation across Scotland. The organisation also isn’t shy – it doesn’t hide away from challenging conversations and approaches its work with a view to achieving change for thousands of people. Another attraction was LSA’s commitment to legal education and training. We have a seminar department which focuses wholly on learning and education and we don’t just deliver sessions on our legal specialist areas but bring in others to ensure we can cover as much of the law as possible. There’s also a big focus on the softer skills such as advocacy, drafting, presenting before a court or tribunal and the like.

What are some things you are proud of from last year?

I am proud of how our staff adapted to the pandemic. As we were going into lockdown, we sat down as a team to go through all the things we needed to adapt. There was a lot of self-learning! We didn’t have the tech needed to work well from home, but the team worked together to come up with ideas. Everyone supported each other, gelling together to make sure there wasn’t a single day when clients weren’t able to access us via phone, email, and post. We responded to what communities needed from us and stayed connected with partners, increasing our reach. I am proud of that and so grateful to the team for all they did and continue to do.

How did you get into social justice work?

I moved to Glasgow 26 years ago this year and a piece of advice I was given was to immediately volunteer somewhere. I chose a law centre, without even being clear about what it was, but was interested in the office management side of things. It was only when was asked if I could speak any other languages that I realised there are a lot of invaluable skills needed in social justice work. My dad always insisted I knew my mother tongues so when I shared that I speak Urdu and Punjabi I was asked to translate. This exposed me to the barriers people face at every step and I knew I wanted to contribute to overcoming those barriers.

I was particularly drawn to the ethos of how law centres operate – they are so close to communities and community organisations. You can make real life changes which has a knock-on effect – I haven’t looked back since. I get to see us help people make informed decisions and exercise their rights. People are often referred to LSA as a last resort – they often feedback that when they came to us, we actually listened to them. It’s the driving force behind everything I do.

How do you see the pandemic continuing to impact your work into 2022?

The pandemic pushed us to go digital, within a few months we had systematised supporting clients remotely through phone, video, webchat, and email, this is something we want to build on further. When we come out of pandemic restrictions, we want to use the learning from our pandemic response to inform our service delivery going forward. We want to remain accessible to anyone who might need us, wherever they are based in Scotland, without losing that human touch. We are person centred – the staff are amazing in terms of how much they care about their clients, always going above and beyond.

This year is also the final year of our current strategic plan so as we look further ahead, we want to think about what is needed of us in this different world and how we can deliver that. We want to be responsive to the legal issues people are facing whilst also doing a lot of preventative work. We know a lot of the problems the people we serve face will not completely go away. Someone once told me that we are like A&E – people come to us in a crisis, and we help them understand and resolve the problem, often taking urgent legal action to protect their position. There are so many different barriers and challenges people face when seeking our support but maintaining our multi-disciplinary approach in an ever-changing environment is important to us.

What keeps you going and what gives you hope?

The compassion people have when working together. In the pandemic, communities came together, civil society came together. We act as the secretariat for a couple of networks and the move to online meetings means people have been able to come together more and work on collaborative projects. What gives me hope is that desire to collaborate and the compassion people have towards a common objective of addressing discrimination and promoting equality.

How can people reading this support your work?

We always need people to contribute their time and skills – from undertaking ongoing voluntary roles to contributing towards a short-term working group or a specific project. When I started, I was keen that our volunteer opportunities didn’t just focus on legal volunteers – we need people to support us with business development, marketing, data analysis, and more. This of course comes from my own experience of volunteering – you don’t need to have a legal background to get involved!