The ‘Oscars’ of the legal aid community, held in central London on a very hot evening in July, recognised the work done by lawyers around the country fighting for justice for their often vulnerable and marginalised clients, whose voices would otherwise go unheard. Catherine Baksi reports.
Photography: Robert Aberman
An asylum-seeker turned immigration solicitor was among those honoured at the 15th Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year (LALY) awards. Kaweh Beheshtizadeh, of specialist London immigration firm Barnes Harrild & Dyer, arrived in the UK in 2004, speaking little English. But he mastered the language enough after a year to complete his foundation course and rapidly went on to do a law degree. He was called to the bar in 2011, but could not find pupillage, and worked as a caseworker before qualifying as a solicitor in 2016.
Accepting his award, he expressed his gratitude to the legal aid lawyer who had helped him to obtain refugee status when he arrived in the UK and inspired him to help others in the same position. ‘I’ll remember her for the rest of my life,’ he said.
Opening the evening in the sweltering summer heat, Jenny Beck, co-chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, told the 500 guests that the annual awards are a ‘bit of a weathervane, reflecting issues that have come to the fore’ over the year. This year’s crop recognised the work of lawyers involved in radicalisation cases, prisoners’ rights and asylum and immigration work.
Despite the often lengthy struggles for justice, highlighted by the work of the Hillsborough legal teams, honoured at last year’s awards, and the ongoing campaign by the families of those who died in the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings, Beck said there had been some ‘happy endings’.
‘The Leigh Day Three are innocent,’ she said to spontaneous warm applause, as the room showed its support for Martyn Day, senior partner of the firm, who was present and who had been among the three lawyers exonerated after facing a seven-week hearing before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in relation to their handling of cases against the British army concerning allegations of torture and ill-treatment during the Iraq war.
Beck highlighted other ‘important victories’ over cuts to legal aid for prisoners and the policy of ‘deport first, appeal later’, both of which involved previous LALY winners. ‘Sometimes the plucky underdog comes out on top,’ she said.
Winners of the 2017 LALYs
Around 500 guests attended the celebration of ‘the unsung work that legal aid lawyers do’
She praised the work of North Kensington Law Centre, located in the shadow of the devastated Grenfell Tower, together with the Housing Law Practitioners Association and Shelter, for their response to the disaster, which killed at least 80 people. Beck expressed the hope that the truth behind the Grenfell Tower fire would come out ‘as quickly as due process allows’, sparing the families and survivors additional grief.
She said: ‘We do know however long it takes, there will be lawyers standing beside the families, every step of the way, despite a system which often seems stacked against giving the bereaved equality of arms.’ Quoting Tottenham MP David Lammy, she said: ‘If there isn’t hope, there has to be justice.’
The 12 awards, including the gong for outstanding achievement, which went to Law Centre housing solicitor Sue James, were presented by Baroness Doreen Lawrence, mother of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, and compèred by Sky News presenter Anna Jones. Baroness Lawrence, who has presented the awards for the past 10 years, said she was there to ‘support the unsung work that legal aid lawyers do’.
Among the audience were Labour MP and former director of public prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer, and Labour’s former shadow legal aid minister, now leading a review into the legal aid cuts, Lord Bach. Winners and guests departed with goody bags containing fidget spinners and sticks of rock. In Willy Wonka style, some bags contained golden tickets, entitling the finder to other treats.
Family public sponsored by Resolution
Sheila’s caseload focuses on complex care cases and international adoptions. Last year, she acted in a string of landmark cases, including Re W, which led to the Court of Appeal issuing guidance on separate representation of children, and Re N, which is now a leading case in international adoption law. She has a growing number of cases involving allegations of radicalisation of children, and acts for the mother of a 16-year-old girl who had sought to join Isis. One supporter said: ‘Sheila is one of family law’s unsung heroes. For over 20 years, she has just got on with the job. She works hard and promotes her client’s case. She isn’t showy and doesn’t make a fuss, but will always put her client’s case fully and properly.’
Criminal defence sponsored by DG Legal
Hodge Jones & Allen
Graeme has dedicated his life to acting for vulnerable defendants and has carved out a niche supporting clients with autism. One mother said: ‘Finally, I was talking to someone who treated my son like a human being and understood his challenges.’ Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, said: ‘Graeme is remarkable in how he educates the courts to take the person’s autism into account in sentencing and how to treat people with autism with respect.’
Legal aid newcomer sponsored by Friends of LALY17
Garden Court North
Tom was nominated by Child Poverty Action Group, in recognition of his work in social security, housing, immigration and public law. Last year, he acted for the Rutherford family in a successful challenge to the so-called ‘bedroom tax’. Paul Rutherford, who, along with his wife, cares for their severely-disabled grandson, said: ‘Tom’s constant confidence in darker moments inspired us to keep going, when it seemed there was no chance of winning.’
Children’s rights sponsored by CILEx
Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens/Migrants Resource Centre
Solange is the founder of PRCBC, which has enabled 66 children to obtain citizenship. Solange was praised for her ‘generosity of spirit and encyclopaedic knowledge’ and for putting ‘fire in the bellies’ of the next generation of immigration lawyers, by showing that solicitors can ‘bring about fundamental change by using the law in a muscular and innovative way’.
Legal aid barrister sponsored by The Bar Council
A specialist in prisoners’ and defendants’ rights, one solicitor praised Philip’s willingness to push the boundaries of law, even at the risk of making himself unpopular with judges. One supporter summed him up as ‘meticulous, articulate, passionate and, above all, uncompromising’. Another said: ‘He is prepared to argue difficult legal points with confidence, determination and energy we rarely see and many of his cases are now used as legal standards in the area of prison-related law.’
Family private including mediation sponsored by Resolution
David Gray Solicitors
Mary’s award was received by a colleague
Mary leads family mediation at David Gray. Her career in family law spans 33 years, and she has undertaken more than 120 mediations. In recent years, she has specialised in mediating for high-conflict couples, including some who are simultaneously in High Court litigation with each other. One fellow solicitor says: ‘She is in a class of her own and exceptionally skilled.’
Social and welfare sponsored by Tikit
Bhatia Best Solicitors
Stuart is head of public law and community care at his Midlands-based firm. He is at the forefront of protecting the rights of refugee children in cases involving detention of young people, age disputes and children in care. In the past year, he has had a string of landmark successes over the treatment of refugee children, where their age is in dispute, leading to a dramatic decrease in the number being detained. He was praised for ‘unparalleled tenacity and commitment to his intensely vulnerable clients’.
Immigration and asylum sponsored by Accesspoint
Barnes Harrild and Dyer
Kaweh arrived in the UK in 2004 speaking little English. He qualified as a solicitor in 2016 but, even as a trainee, had a number of reported cases in the High Court and Court of Appeal, including test cases. A barrister Kaweh instructs, who taught him at law school, said: ‘When I consider how far he has come since arriving in the UK, he really is inspirational and I look forward to watching him develop his career even further.’
Legal aid firm/not-for-profit agency sponsored by The Law Society
Community Law Partnership
Community Law Partnership, based in Birmingham, is a legal aid firm to its core. All of its work is publicly funded and it is nationally recognised for its housing expertise, acting for those facing possession and the homeless, and its commitment to Gypsies and Travellers. A client who collapsed when trying to represent herself said: ‘I went from wanting to die to wanting to live – that’s how much their help meant.’
Access to justice through IT sponsored by The Legal Education Foundation
Advicenow, Law for Life
Law for Life uses multimedia information and education to help people understand their rights and have the confidence and skills to enforce them. Its Advicenow site is a vital resource for litigants in person, providing accurate and clear information in a user-friendly format, including via a series of explainer videos. One user said: ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you. Before I found Advicenow, I had just spent two days looking at the form on screen and getting ready to explode.’
Public law sponsored by Irwin Mitchell
Dr Keith Lomax
A pioneer in public law for more than a quarter of a century, Keith was one of the first solicitors to appreciate the significance of the Human Rights Act, bringing the key case of Connors v UK to establish article 8 rights for Gypsies and Travellers. One supporter said: ‘You can guarantee that if there is a point that is arguable, Keith will pursue it. If there is a case to be made, Keith will argue it.’
Outstanding achievement sponsored by Matrix
Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre
A specialist housing solicitor from Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre, Sue has spent most of her 28-year legal career working in Law Centres. She runs two housing duty desk schemes and recently set up an outreach service at a local foodbank.
Sue worked full-time at one Law Centre while setting up a new Law Centre elsewhere after a neighbouring borough lost its main social welfare law provider. This involved setting up a charity, and securing legal aid contracts and grant funding, all in her spare time, to ensure the people of Ealing were not left in an advice desert. One supporter said: ‘She has spent her entire working life in underpaid, overworked jobs, in shabby offices with few resources to fight the corner of the dispossessed and repossessed, the mentally ill and the poor.’
Sue has brought a number of groundbreaking cases. Early in her career, she acted for Carole Webb, who had been sacked after becoming pregnant. The case went all the way to the European Court of Justice to secure important protections for women, in a case that is still cited by the Supreme Court. In 2005, while working on an advice line, she took a call from 17-year-old Akilah Robinson who had been kicked out of her home. Her local authority was trying to delay dealing with her case until she turned 18, when she would no longer have the same rights to be rehoused. Sue took the case to the Court of Appeal and won important protections for young homeless people.
Accepting the award, Sue paid tribute to the work of all legal aid lawyers: ‘Being a legal aid lawyer takes courage, brains and, most definitely, a heart.’ She rallied the crowd with this message: ‘Let’s be radical again, like in the seventies, and inspire the next generation of legal aid lawyers.’
The Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards are organised by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group.
Legal Action is media partner to the awards.