The FLAC Interview - Jackie Heffernan
21 December 2021
Jackie Heffernan has been an indispensable and highly regarded member of the FLAC team since 2004. In February 2021, Jackie officially stepped down from her role as Telephone Information and Referral Line Coordinator. In this interview Jackie reflects on her time working on the FLAC Phoneline and the nature of the thousands of callers and queries she has dealt with over the years.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
I finished school when I was just barely 17. Following a year working in Brussels as an au pair, I started doing lectures in Trinity in 1976. It was the old system of law at that time - Blackhall Place hadn’t yet started - so I had a five year apprenticeship in a solicitors office in Dublin and I had to do what they called the solicitors professional exams.
How did you hear about FLAC?
Well FLAC was obviously up and running at that time. So as a law student, I would have gone along to the FLAC clinic in Rialto one evening a week. There I would have met the different clients, I remember there would always have been a qualified solicitor or barrister available to help if there was a case that had to be done in court like a barring order or something. Volunteering with FLAC was just a thing that students did at that time you know, it’s different now because FLAC volunteers are all fully qualified.
And what was the work with FLAC like?
Well it was quite different to the work I was doing during my apprenticeship which was with an old established firm. I wouldn't have been face-to-face with any clients, also, I was very young, just turned 18, with no experience of anything so it was good to get to actually meet people who had issues and problems. I suppose it was a bit of an eye-opener.
What was next for you?
I qualified then in 1981 and started working with a firm on South Frederick St. called Black & Co, it was a small office and I was in the general litigation area so I would have gotten experience in lots of different areas.
I worked there for 11 years and then when my daughter, Lizzie, was born in 1992 I stopped work and I stayed at home.
How long did you stay at home for?
I stayed at home for 12 years. Then at that stage I decided that if I didn’t go back and pick up on the law it would get harder – things were changing a lot, legislation was changing. I could also see friends of mine all whizzing along in their careers and I thought I need to go back.
And how did you find going back to work after being at home with your daughter?
It was very difficult, like starting all over again. I was wondering where I would begin. The legal aid board had been set up around 1995 (with the Civil Legal Aid Act) so I had been thinking maybe I could get some work experience there, when a friend of mine said but what about FLAC? So one day early in 2004 I drove to FLAC office on Dorset Street, walked in and asked to speak to whoever was in charge. Catherine Hickey was the CE at the time and she came downstairs and I introduced myself and asked if there was any chance that I could get some work experience. Catherine was very encouraging and facilitated me straight away. So I joined FLAC. That was 2004 and I have been working there ever since.
What was your impression of FLAC at the time?
I thought it was really wonderful. The staff had such great energy and they all had an interest in seeing change. It was exciting as well to see all the campaign and policy work that was happening. Access to Justice was at the heart of all FLAC were doing. Legal aid was up and running, but it wasn’t available then to people who had a net income of more than 13000 euro per annum so clearly the thresholds needed to be raised and FLAC was doing that work, putting pressure on to improve legal aid and ensure that it was accessible. The sheer volume of work that was being done by such a small group of committed people was really impressive.
And what were your duties?
I sat just inside the door of the office, answering the phones and providing basic legal information to the people who phoned the FLAC information line. There were two lines, I answered one and an intern answered the other, we would each have a copybook and we would write down all the calls that came in, including the nature of the query. We always had a safety net in that we were able to call on staff members who had expertise in the different areas of law, and then of course we could refer people to the clinics where they could get legal advice rather than information. You heard all sorts, lots of legal questions but some that were not legal at all
What kind of queries would you have heard over the years?
Calls related to family law, Employment law, Landlord and Tenant, Credit & Debt, and other general areas but the majority of calls were, and still are, in the area of Family Law. When I started with FLAC in 2004 it was the boom. Then things started to become unstuck around 2007 and in 2008 everything went belly up.
After the crash there was a big change - there was a huge increase in calls around mortgage arrears and debt, employment law and residential tenancies. People had over stretched themselves - you had on the one hand people who had lost their job through no fault of their own and were struggling to keep a roof over their heads and on the other hand you had people who had bought investment properties who were unable to pay their mortgages due to tenants who couldn’t pay their rent. It was uncharted territory and very bleak for people. There was no code of conduct on mortgage arrears in place to protect the homeowner. FLAC, through Paul Joyce, was instrumental in pushing for this and the first code of conduct was introduced in 2010.
We began to get a lot of calls in relation to redundancies also. We noticed a lot of employees were being asked to take a cut in pay or face their employer going under – they were faced with the awful dilemma – ‘do I stay working for less money or do I lose my job?’ There was very little people could do. It was pretty desperate.
So what happened after that period?
Well by 2010 there were four of us answering the phone at any given time. By that time FLAC had expanded it’s premises on Dorset Street. My daughter had finished school and I became full-time with FLAC.
At the end of a day of taking difficult calls did you ever feel down?
Quite honestly, I didn’t feel that way so much because I tended to leave everything in the building when I went home at night. But the younger members of the team used to feel it. A lot of the people who contacted us would have had mental illness or depression, hopelessness was very common and it wasn’t uncommon for a caller to say that they were suicidal, or to say that someone in their family had died by suicide. So there wasn’t a lot of hope there for people so that would affect us all.
So how did you deal with that?
We had a practice whereby if you had a particularly difficult call you took a break and talked to one of the others. We were all very aware of what was going on for the other team members and we were all very empathetic.
Around this time we also started using the services of Hannah Carney. We would meet with Hannah maybe twice or three times a year – it would always be a welcome break -away from the phones for a morning. As a group would discuss the ups and downs of working on the phones and she would work with us as a team. One of the reasons it worked so well was that it acknowledged and gave us space for us to discuss what we encountered on the phoneline.
When did you become the supervisor or the co-ordinator on the phoneline?
I haven’t a clue! (laughs) I was just there and did what needed to be done! None of those titles sat comfortably with me I just did my bit. The only thing I suppose is that I just happened to be here longer than anybody else.
Tell me about Covid, what kind of calls were you getting?
The first thing that had happened was that we were overrun with issues that cropped up around employment, all sorts of queries - people that were on layoff, people that were working from home, people who were unable to work from home due to childcare issues - so there were just questions, questions, questions, and many that we did not yet know the answer to.
There were also a lot of family law queries and one thing that a lot of us found hard were the calls relating to child access. Parents were using Covid, rightly or wrongly, to refuse access even when there was an Access Order in place. The routine for children and parents was suddenly up in the air especially if they lived in different counties or quite a distance apart. The courts were closed except for emergencies. Thankfully the Courts service and the Law Society issued guidelines which
There were also quite a few domestic violence calls and that really that stands out. We would always have had calls of that nature but because of peoples’ circumstances, people living in confined spaces, not being able to go out to work and kids being home from school it made things very, very difficult for people.
Did you work remotely?
Yes, during Covid, the phoneline team were, and still are, working remotely. That can be difficult as you don’t have access to your team in the same way as if you were working side by side in the office. It can be intense. We do have a whatsapp group though, which is great and every day at 2.30 we debrief on zoom and get help with whatever has cropped up that morning. We can then call people back in the afternoon if necessary. There is also great support from the FLAC staff.
What are the qualities required to work on the phoneline?
You have to want to do it and I think you have to have patience. First and foremost you have to remember you are dealing with somebody's life and I think you have to have an interest in that – in the day-to-day problems and issues that crop up for people. Yes you are providing a service but it is also a privilege, you are learning from the people who phone in. Sometimes you are talking to someone and they have the most amazing story and they may not have opened up like that to somebody before. They may be living in very abnormal conditions, and they describe what they have to put up with, for example you might get a call from an elderly woman who might be living this desperate life and suddenly she finds she cannot put up with it any more so she decides to get a separation from her husband and she phones FLAC. So you listen and you provide her with whatever information you can and often at the end she might be very grateful for that. It’s nice when that happens but it’s not always like that, at the end of a call a caller might be angry and might tell you that you are the worst person in the world.We have all come off the phone, at one time or an another, crushed because somebody was taking out how they feel about their issue on the person who answered their call.
What’s your role on the phoneline now and do you still enjoy it?
I’m still answering the phone but I only work one day a week now, and yes, I really enjoy it, I find it interesting and it gives me a certain amount of satisfaction. It keeps me in tune with what’s happening in the world. For example, recently, when the situation in Afghanistan erupted, I spoke to somebody who was from Afghanistan who was living here and they were worried about their family. That’s what I mean, the phoneline reflects what is going on in the world.
I have loved working in FLAC. I don’t think I could have worked with a nicer bunch of people. People came and went but there has always been something unique within the organisation. It was there when I started and it is still there –it’s hard put my finger on it but I will try – it’s a combination of generosity and respect, hard work and dedication, cheerful comraderie and most importantly, decency.