“Richard Westlake is a passionate and dedicated legal adviser who is committed to doing the best for his clients. Housing law is a technical area of law which requires a broad skillset in understanding the application of black letter law, whilst dealing with vulnerable clients about serious issues of real importance. Richard excels in both.”

This is a testimonial from Natasha Bellinger, Joint Head of Magdalen Chambers, and one of many similar comments about Richard Westlake, Lawyer in our Housing Team.

If you take a look at Richard’s CV, you’ll see a life dedicated to the service of others. He isn’t interested in a job which needs only half his energy, or half his commitment. After more than 30 years in the field he says he still feels ‘the fire in my belly’. He needs to do work which is in his view honest, and where he can help people.

His dedication to his clients and to providing access to justice is worthy of his shortlisting for the DASLS Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year award. His resilience and commitment to clients is what keeps him turning up to work at Cartridges Law every day and achieving results which genuinely change people’s lives.

So important is Richard’s work that feedback often describes him as saving the lives of his clients, some of whom have come close to taking their own lives because of the situations they have found themselves in.

A Career of Service 

Richard has been involved in advice and legal work for over 30 years, since leaving the Army in 1992.

He initially volunteered for Citizens Advice (while working part time as a postman) receiving ‘excellent training’ in welfare benefits and employment law. He then moved to a paid role with North Wiltshire Citizens Advice and began to focus on housing law. Richard and his wife had themselves been left homeless at one time, because of high interest rates; and as he says their experience ‘helps me understand’ the issues that clients are facing.

Richard’s next job was with Shelter, in Plymouth, where he became a senior caseworker. Shelter had a legal aid franchise, so Richard was now working within the legal aid system. He stayed at Shelter for six years and was responsible for Plymouth Shelter’s maintenance of their legal aid Quality Mark.

Wanting to ‘see it from the other side’, Richard took a job with South Hams District Council as a Homelessness Officer, but it wasn’t for him and he left after two years and went to work at HMP Channings Wood, firstly for the St Giles’ Trust and then directly for the Prison Service. His area was the resettlement (including housing) of prisoners. When – after six or so years in the job – his role changed as part of the privatisation of the probation service, Richard again found himself at odds with a bureaucratic system more interested in its own processes than in the needs of its often-vulnerable clients.

Joining Cartridges Law

In 2018 Richard came to Cartridges Law. He knew of it as a firm committed to legal aid and with a housing contract, which was rare, even then. It was his first job in private legal practice, so he had everything to learn about the ‘real world’ issues of time-recording, fee income, the SRA and how a loss-leading activity like legal aid housing work fits into a sustainable legal practice.

Partner Penny Scott says: “It’s not the easiest environment in which to lead from the heart, but Richard remains committed to his job and his clients.”

Richard says: “I wouldn’t want to live in a country where people’s basic rights and access to justice had been taken away. The way Cartridges Law works gives me the opportunity to help my clients uphold those legal rights.”

In many of his cases Richard must take on the local authority, in their guise as landlord. Disrepair, repossessions and homelessness are everywhere. Richard’s analysis is that because they are in such deep financial trouble, local authorities sometimes resign themselves to behaving as if they’re not accountable; but it’s Richard’s role to remind them,  assertively if needed, that they do have duties in law and that their tenants have rights under those laws which can and will be enforced if necessary. Richard comments, ‘In the end, it’s not cost-effective for local authorities to avoid taking responsibility. It’s a form of deflection to blame the tenant or homeless applicants for faults within the system. The housing sector needs to perform better and, in the meantime, we will continue to be a thorn in their side if appropriate.’ Richard understands the pressures local authorities are under and empathises with them on this however he also believes that papering over the cracks helps no one and that it is crucial that they work within the laws and guidelines set by government as failing to do this only covers up the true extent of the housing problems and crisis they, tenants or homeless people face.

Legal Aid underpins the ethos of Cartridges Law with Housing Law being at the heart of the firm from the very beginning. Richard needs to work very hard to sustain this area of the business, being prepared to take instructions on an urgent basis, undertake vast amounts of work himself and by doing his own advocacy he can ensure the service is sustainable. With Richard’s hard work, Cartridges Law is the only law firm south of Bristol who hold a Housing contract with the Legal Aid Agency, this is because other firms recognise the hard work that is required to sustain such a service and choose not to bid for the contracts available to them, it is a fact that most housing legal aid services are loss making or break even at best.

Richard and his colleagues in the small housing team must also take on private funded clients on top of a very heavy legal aid caseload, they need to do this in part so that the firm can continue to provide the legal aid service. Private cases are considered just as important as publicly funded cases and Richard gives these the same energies and commitment as any other case meaning that on occasions he has to work in the opposite direction on behalf of private landlords, he says that he is not here to judge but to ensure that the correct processes are followed no matter the funding stream.

His is a job from which Richard derives purpose. After these many years, Richard still enjoys coming to work in the knowledge that he can help people, often people who are experiencing the lowest point in their lives.

We are lucky to have him here at Cartridges Law.