He has come a long way, but now Josh Hepple must confront his biggest challenge yet. Legal Cheek‘s Katie King reports
Like many legal hopefuls, City University Legal Practice Course (LPC) student Josh Hepple (pictured above with Katie King) wants to pursue a career in human rights law. What marks him out from the crowd is that he is severely disabled.
Hepple, who has cerebral palsy, made headlines this summer following a tireless campaign to improve disabled students’ access to law school facilities — and he’s not done yet.
With a 2:1 law degree from Stirling University and a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) under his belt, Hepple is now studying for his LPC in the pursuit of becoming a human rights solicitor.
Legal Cheek caught up with Hepple to find out what it’s like to study law as a disabled student, and to hear what his plans are.
When asked why he chose to pursue a career as a solicitor, Hepple was frank in admitting that his initial ambition was to become a barrister. However, given that his speech impairment could make communication difficult during the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) advocacy sessions, he chose to pursue the LPC instead. He explains:
Every word carries weight in court, and it wouldn’t be fair for jurors and others in court to try to understand me.
The City student is yet to meet a barrister with speech problems as severe as his, and he’d like to change this. Despite opting against a career at the bar for himself, he is keen to kickstart a training opportunity for would-be advocates living with disabilities to give them the chance to practice speaking in the courtroom.
I’d like to see systems put in place to give people with speech impairments the chance to practice speaking in court,” says Hepple. “I’ve raised this with the Bar Standards Board, and they’ve been very receptive. They’re doing an overhaul of the entire training system at the moment.
Currently Hepple is studying the LPC, and is continuing to face challenges along the way.
The LPC tests more practical skills than the GDL, such as interviewing — which the aspiring lawyer is finding tough. Hepple also often requires assistance from his aide to complete certain handwritten forms which are a feature of the course. This eats into his student interaction time and makes it harder for him to socialise. However, communication with his lecturers is not a problem, while reasonable adjustments are being made for upcoming exams.
One lingering complaint from Hepple is his access in and out of the university, or lack of. Though City University recently held their hands up to problems with their library accessibility and improved its entry system, the LPC student now says that his teaching rooms are, while accessible, difficult to get to. Though the university have been notified, Hepple reports that the improvements he has requested have not yet been put in place.
Despite these obstacles and the intense workload, Hepple is enjoying his studies. At the same time, he is conscious of the pressure to line up a job at the end of the course.
Hepple’s goal is to follow up the work experience stint he did at top London civil liberties law firm Bindmans by bagging a training contract in human rights law. In order to further that aim he has been bolstering his CV by writing a host of articles on disabilities, which have been published in a range of academic journals and The Times Educational Supplement.
As he works on applications, the young wannabe lawyer is also keen to use the story of how he has overcome his disability to prove the steely determination that he possesses. He comments:
I do state in my TC applications that I’m disabled, but I use this to my advantage. I say ‘yes I am disabled, but look how much I’ve achieved.’
As he moves forward, Hepple holds close the words of encouragement given to him by Doughty Street barrister Jonathan Cooper OBE, who he has worked with on LGBT events and who inspired him to pursue legal practice. While Hepple had been considering an academic legal career, Cooper encouraged him not to view his disability as a barrier to a life in practice.
The training contract application process aside, Hepple’s big concern is that his target employers will be unable to accommodate his disability, because smaller firms are often wheelchair inaccessible — especially those in the Temple area. When asked about this in the context of the diversity demography of law firms and chambers, Hepple says:
A regulatory board will always encourage diversity, but compared to women and BME lawyers, some disabled lawyers require resources and how this would be funded I don’t know.
Disability access tends to be much better at corporate law firms, many of which go to great lengths to ensure their lawyers with disabilities have a comfortable and easily accessible working environment. Of course, big budgets of the type not possessed by human rights firms play a part.
But big business isn’t the area of law that drives Hepple, who wants to work personally with individual clients. Certainly, as far as reasons to go onto law go, they don’t come much better this his. Hepple explains:
I experience discrimination everyday, and I have an empathy, a frustration and a desire for justice.
It would be a great shame if this young lawyer-to-be’s passion was allowed to go unharnessed by a few access and communication issues. Compared to everything that Hepple has overcome, these practical hurdles are easily solvable.