Lawyer of the Month: Rebecca Samaras

Lawyer of the Month: Rebecca Samaras

Rebecca Samaras

Rebecca Samaras never planned to be a lawyer. Having grown up in Ramsgate and then Liverpool, it was history and archaeology that was her passion – Alexander the Great was her hero and as a youngster she was determined that she was going to find his tomb.

But, having found herself a single mother of two little girls in the early nineties, she decided to go back to school – Edinburgh Law School, to be precise – and, after a long career that saw her play a pivotal role in the development of the institution’s Free Legal Advice Centre, she recently moved to Dundee to do the same for the university there. It has, she says, been a positive move.

“Dundee – what a place and what a heart,” she says. “The university and the law school are smaller than in Edinburgh but I’m really enjoying that because there’s a real sense of community here. It’s very collegiate and I feel part of the community. There’s a real buzz about the place.”

It is a far cry from the life she imagined for herself when she was growing up on the Kent coast. Her Cypriot father Vassos had come to Britain as a teenage refugee during the Cyprus Emergency of the 1950s, travelling alone and taking any work he could find to keep himself afloat. Having met Samaras’s mother Bobbie not long after arriving, the couple soon married and went on to have three children. But, with Bobbie acting as a carer for her own mother while Vassos’s career as an engineer was temporarily curtailed due to an accident, life for the family was tough.

“Poverty-wise we were very poor, but we were very happy,” Samaras says.

Things improved for the family after they moved to Liverpool when Samaras was in her teens, although she says she and her two siblings all suffered bullying at school there. Still, she “threw myself into my studies” as a result and went on to do a degree in ancient history and archaeology in Manchester. While there, it was a chance meeting with her future husband during a night out in Chester that led her to Scotland and into a career in law.

“I moved to Edinburgh with him,” she says. “We had two daughters, but unfortunately things didn’t work out and we separated. At that point I thought how am I going to support my kids – my youngest wasn’t even 18 months old.

“When I was pregnant with both girls I’d done some Open University courses. One was on the Enlightenment, which went into the history of law, and my tutor asked if I’d thought about doing law – I was having issues with the poll tax at the time and was helping people on my street deal with letters they were getting about it too. I walked into Edinburgh Law School, asked if I could speak to somebody and ended up speaking to the then deputy dean of the school, Douglas Brodie. He said I had the right qualifications to do the degree and so I applied and got in.”

After qualifying Samaras did her traineeship with Edinburgh firm Campbell Smith and would often pop into the law school on her way back to the office after court. A chance encounter with Lady Tyre, who taught on the LLB and diploma courses and was at that time in the process of setting up the Free Legal Advice Centre, led to Samaras filling in on a tutoring slot. That led to a role as a supervising solicitor when the clinic was up and running and, after Samaras was later made redundant from Simpson & Marwick during the credit crunch, further teaching opportunities at the university.

“I was working part-time in a charity and part-time as a tutor, but then the charity’s funding got pulled and it folded,” she recalls. “That was actually fortuitous because I was getting more and more teaching opportunities at the university and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Eventually it became full time.”

During her 14 years at Edinburgh, Samaras became director of clinical legal education, an area of the law she believes is vital for anyone hoping to use their degree to go on to practise.

“I used to think practical teaching was what’s important, but experiential learning is teaching by doing,” she says. “It’s how they do it in places like America and South Africa – it’s a global movement – and over 90 per cent of UK universities now have a law clinic.”

Recognising the role a law clinic can play in both students’ lives and the lives of those living in the local community, the University of Dundee created the position of director clinical legal education for Samaras last year. Last month the university’s own law clinic opened with Samaras, who maintains a practising certificate, at the helm and European Court of Human Rights judge Tim Eicke KC – an honorary graduate of Dundee – as its patron.

“We’ve been working with a community centre that deals with a lot of people with debt and benefits issues, talking to their advisers about eviction rights,” Samaras says. “The students did that and loved it – they came out feeling great because they had managed to do some good, but at the same time they had had to go away and do the research. They’d had to go and learn the law.

“We’ve also got an in-person clinic, where individual clients come in, students interview them then they go away and give them advice. The cases are around things like housing, employment, family law. They are all exactly as I expected and I expect we’ll get a lot of issues around rental rights when new regulations around the cap on rent increases comes in on 1 April.”

Though the clinic provides that vital experience for students to practice practising, Samaras says it shouldn’t be necessary because people should be able to access legal aid to help them uphold their individual rights. Yet she stresses how important it is to now have a clinic in a city like Dundee, where the unmet need is huge.

“There’s a great amount of poverty in Dundee,” she says. “My first day here I walked past the community kitchen and there was a huge queue – I thought we need to be doing something about that. This is a community city and the students feel very much part of that and want to be involved in that.

“Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen – all the major cities are in exactly the same position but when you’re in an area that’s so spread out it’s even more so. Dundee, Angus and Fife is a desert when it comes to there being services for people and the existing services are in desperate need of support. Dundee Law Centre is amazing and we’re working in partnership with them but they can’t cope with the demand. We’re working in the community and living in the community and we want to give something back to that community.”

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