Young Legal Aid Lawyers
“We must keep telling legal aid success stories to persuade politicians and the public of the importance of meaningful access to justice.”
Life for legal aid lawyers isn’t easy but, despite the difficulties, 2015 did bring some cheer. Here are the top ten reasons why we loved legal aid last year.
1. The campaigns we won
Thanks to the sustained efforts of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Christmas 2015 brought the abolition of the criminal courts charge. The charge prompted many magistrates to resign in protest against a policy that was widely considered to be unfair, unrealistic and unjust. Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, welcomed the abolition of the charge as ‘a victory for justice’.
2. The people we celebrated
This year’s Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards saw former YLAL co-chair Connor Johnston awarded the Legal Aid Newcomer award. Connor praised YLAL in his acceptance speech, adding: ‘You have to be tenacious to be a legal aid lawyer, but it’s worth it.’ The LALYs provide an often embattled profession with an invaluable opportunity to celebrate the vital work that we do to serve the public.
3. The thanks we gave
Through our blog @Thanks2LegalAid, we gave thanks for the small human victories that our members achieve every day using legal aid. For example, on 11 March 2015, one member blogged that, thanks to legal aid, ‘I helped a terminally ill girl and her family access critical support.’ It is crucial that we continue to publicise and promote legal aid success stories to help persuade politicians and the public of the importance of meaningful access to justice.
4. The myths we busted
YLAL produced a new and updated Legal Aid Mythbuster to correct common misconceptions about legal aid. This resource is intended to arm lawyers, campaigners and lay people with the tools to combat the myths about legal aid often promoted by the government.
5. The battles we carried on fighting
We did not keep calm, we carried on the fight to save legal aid. Rights of Women renewed its appeal against the domestic violence evidence criteria; the Public Law Project sought permission to appeal the Court of Appeal judgment on the proposed residence test for civil legal aid (PLP v Lord Chancellor  EWCA Civ 1193, 25 November 2015); the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association and criminal lawyers across the country continued (and continue) to challenge and campaign vociferously against two-tier contracts and cuts to fees for criminal lawyers.
6. The unity we showed
We marched, we protested and we made music for legal aid. From Runnymede to Parliament Square, armed with many a banner, hashtag or jelfie, our profession came together to fight for access to justice.
7. The bold new opposition we welcomed
Shortly after his election as the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn announced the Labour Legal Aid Review. Led by Lord Bach, this will consider civil, crime, family and social welfare law. We are heartened that the leader of the opposition is an unambiguous and wholehearted supporter of legal aid.
8. The careers we began building
We paved the way for the future of the profession. We matched dozens of aspiring legal aid lawyers with experienced mentors through our mentoring programme, which is helping to ensure the next generation committed to social justice is not discouraged by the ever-increasing obstacles it faces.
9. The cartoons we loved
2015 bore witness to the inspired Legal Aid Team cartoon film produced by Fat Rat Films and launched by the Guardian prior to the general election. Featuring a malevolent lord chancellor wreaking havoc on the justice system at the expense of ordinary citizens, opposed only by ‘superhero’ legal aid lawyers, the cartoon sought to take the campaign for access to justice to a wider public audience.
10. The age we turned
YLAL turned 10. We marked our birthday with a keynote speech from Baroness Scotland QC and a lively all-party pre-election panel debate on the future of legal aid, chaired by Guardian legal correspondent Owen Bowcott. We were delighted that so many people joined us at London South Bank University to celebrate, and we look forward to many more years of supporting junior lawyers and campaigning for access to justice. ■