‘Momentous day’ for winners and wider profession
Lawyers at the Legal Aid Practitioners Group’s 2015 Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards in early July were feeling the heat, for more reasons than one, reports Catherine Baksi.
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The thirteenth Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards took place, as Legal Aid Practitioners Group director Carol Storer said opening the ceremony, on a ‘momentous day’. Not because of the scorching heat, but because 1 July was the date on which the second 8.75 per cent cut in criminal fees came in – and the day on which many solicitors around the country refused to take new cases in protest.
The decision by some firms to take action followed ballots by the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association over how their members should respond to the continued onslaught from the government.
It was fitting that the leaders of those two groups – a quartet who have fought tirelessly against the cuts and led the challenge to the MoJ’s contract reforms – were honoured with the first award of the evening. Storer presented the LAPG committee special award to the CLSA’s ‘subtle diplomat’ Bill Waddington and ‘tub-thumping’ Robin Murray, and the LCCSA’s Twitter aficionado Jonathan Black and ‘ideas man’ Paul Harris.
Accepting the award on what he described as an ‘historic day’ in the fight for legal aid, Bill Waddington called on the justice secretary, Michael Gove, to ‘press the stop button’, consult and review the cuts.
All four warned of the catastrophic impact of the cuts. But, said Harris: ‘We are fighting back for our futures and for the people legal aid is set up to protect.’ Murray added: ‘I didn’t come into legal aid to make a lot of money – and I’ve fulfilled that ambition spectacularly.’
Lord Justice McFarlane, who presented the awards and chairs the LALY judging panel, praised the ‘quality, commitment and doggedness’ of the legal aid lawyers the evening celebrates.
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LAPG Special Award winners (l-r): Bill Waddington, Robin Murray, Paul Harris & Jonathan Black
LAPG co-chair Jenny Beck said that, despite the doom and gloom, looking round the room and seeing the resolve of the shortlisted lawyers and their colleagues, it was ‘impossible not to feel inspired and optimistic about what we might achieve in the future’.
First and foremost, the evening was a celebration, as Storer put it, ‘of grass roots lawyers doing what they do best’.
‘I didn’t come into legal aid to make a lot of money – and I’ve fulfilled that ambition spectacularly.’
Compère Anna Jones, of Sky News, said the LALY judges were impressed by the ‘high calibre’ of those nominated for the awards. ‘The competition was incredibly fierce and a real testament to the absolute dedication legal aid practitioners bring to their work,’ she added.
The theme of teamwork ran through the evening. Accepting her public law award, Birnberg Peirce’s Marcia Willis-Stewart quoted the Jamaican saying: ‘One hand can’t clap.’ Teamwork was also epitomised by the recipient of the award for outstanding achievement – the charity Public Law Project, for its challenges to the government’s legal aid reforms.
PLP solicitor Jo Hickman made a rallying cry: ‘It is essential that we do not accept the substandard, the illogical and the unfair, and that we do not accept the path of least resistance. We must keep challenging.’
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Legal aid newcomer
Connor Johnston
(Garden Court Chambers)
Connor has carved out a highly successful practice in housing, community care and public law for one so new to the profession, and, as its co-chair, been a stalwart of the Young Legal Aid Lawyers group. A supporter said he combines a complete lack of personal ego with being devastatingly effective, whether in front of a parliamentary committee or a judge.
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Anna Jones, LALYs compère (left), and Lord Justice McFarlane, awards presenter and chair of the LALY judging panel (right), with Jo Renshaw
Social and welfare
Jo Renshaw
(Turpin & Miller)
Jo, whose nomination was supported by umpteen charities and campaign groups, was described as a brilliant immigration lawyer. Her colleagues called her ‘the glue that keeps the team together’. An ‘absolute powerhouse’, she can ‘pinpoint the error in a lengthy judgment, dismantle the other side’s case and draft watertight grounds of appeal before she’s had her first cup of coffee’.
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Legal aid barrister
Alison Pickup
(Doughty Street)
Alison was involved in the successful challenges to the exceptional funding regulations and the residence test. One solicitor described her as ‘a guardian of legal aid’. A solicitor in the residence test case said: ‘In an all-star team, she was very much a “special ingredient”.’
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Family legal aid
Sarah Cove
(Miles & Partners)
A solicitor-advocate, Sarah has handled mainly public law proceedings for children and young people, and is a Resolution-accredited specialist in children and domestic abuse. She understands the importance for children of having their voices heard and, whenever possible, will arrange for a child to meet the judge ahead of the case.
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Jayesh Kunwardia
(Hodge Jones & Allen)
Jayesh was behind the Supreme Court challenge to Westminster Council’s attempts to rehouse a single mother 50 miles away. The case has been called ‘the most significant housing case of the year’. It took Jayesh two years to battle through the lower courts, but the Supreme Court less than 24 hours to agree with his argument.
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Public law
Marcia Willis-Stewart
(Birnberg Peirce)
Marcia has combined managing her firm with bringing some of the ‘highest-profile, most highly charged and important cases of our age’. She acted for the families of Mark Duggan, Jean Charles de Menezes, and 75 victims of the Hillsborough disaster (where she instructs a team of 23 barristers).
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Family mediator
Margaret Pendlebury
(MiD Mediation)
Margaret was described as a longstanding champion of mediation services. Her success rate for agreements reached is 89 per cent. A staff member said that rather than being nominated for the family mediator award, she ought to be nominated for ‘canonisation’.
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Legal aid firm/not for profit agency
Central England Law Centre
The UK’s largest law centre, CELC was formed this year from Coventry Law Centre and Birmingham Community Law Centre. Its 41 staff cover 10 areas of social welfare law. As well as day-to-day case work, Stephen Knafler QC said it was ‘brilliant at strategic test case litigation’.
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Children’s rights
Noel Arnold
(Coram Children’s Legal Centre)
Noel joined Coram in 2012 and manages its legal aid practice. Despite a challenging financial climate, he has stabilised its finances and increased fee earner performance by 22 per cent, ensuring the future of one of the few legal aid practices dedicated solely to children.
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Access to justice through IT
Courtnav was developed by the Royal Courts of Justice Advice Bureau with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in response to the removal of most family legal aid. The online tool helps parties navigate the court process and enables more of the bureau’s scant resources to be devoted to face-to-face advice.
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Criminal defence
Mark Ashford
(TV Edwards)
Mark has worked for 22 years to protect the rights of children in the criminal justice system. He was described as the doyen of youth justice work. A supporter said he is ‘liked and feared by judges, as he tends to know more than they do about the law’, but he is best known for his compassion for his young clients.
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Outstanding achievement
Public Law Project
PLP received the award in recognition of its repeated successes in challenging government cuts to legal aid. These included preventing the implementation of the legal aid residence test, a challenge to the ‘no permission, no payment’ judicial review regulations and getting the exceptional case funding scheme declared unlawful. The LALY judges described these victories as ‘bringing a few chinks of light’ to practitioners during what had been a challenging year.
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The Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards are organised by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group.
Legal Action is media partner to the awards. See back cover for details of sponsors.
Photographs: Robert Aberman

About the author(s)

Description: Catherine Baksi - author
Catherine Baksi is a freelance legal affairs journalist.