On the evening of 17 July, the day The Law Society’s challenge to legal aid cuts for criminal solicitors began in the High Court, 500 people gathered in a balmy London to celebrate the tireless work of legal aid lawyers up and down the country. Catherine Baksi reports.
LALY winners 2018: protecting those 'whose voices can't otherwise be heard'
In its sweet 16th year, the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards, known affectionately as the LALYs, honoured the soon-to-be president of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, with the outstanding achievement award. Sir Andrew will be the first person to assume the role who has practised as a legal aid childcare lawyer. A long-time supporter and former judge of the LALYs, he described himself as a ‘champion of legal aid’ and praised the ‘intelligence, humanity, integrity and grit’ of the 34 finalists and 12 winners, whom he was ‘humbled’ to be among.
Constrained by judicial office, Sir Andrew said he was not able to give the speech he would otherwise have given. Instead, he engaged in an exercise of ‘thought transference’. Assuming the posture of Rodin’s Thinker, he asked the audience to cheer at the end of his thought transmission if they agreed with him. Needless to say, his exercise was greeted with rapturous applause and the odd wolf-whistle.
Despite the judicial shackles, Sir Andrew highlighted the importance of legal aid lawyers in helping people assert their rights and hoped they were made use of. ‘It’s all very well, and it’s really good, that we live in a country that has developed a sophisticated idea of human rights. But those rights are no good to anybody unless the person has access to them,’ he said. Lawyers are the ‘key’ to accessing those rights and without lawyers ‘access to rights is really an empty phrase’.
Stressing the importance of the work done by legal aid lawyers to communities and society in general, he cautioned that although legal aid is a calling and practitioners are ‘not in it for the money’: ‘It’s important that you’re not taken advantage of because you’ve got a vocation.’
Other awards recognised lawyers working at the cutting edge, whose cases transform their clients’ lives and play a key part in the evolution of the law, also transforming the lives of countless others. Lewis Kett, who won the legal aid newcomer award, was part of a team that challenged a new Home Office policy of disregarding torture by non-state agents when considering whether asylum-seekers should be detained; public lawyer of the year Harriet Wistrich led the first-ever successful challenge to a Parole Board decision in the Worboys case; and housing lawyer of the year Giles Peaker worked on the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill.
Aika Stephenson, one of the first defence lawyers to use the Modern Slavery Act successfully to ensure that vulnerable young people groomed by gangs into selling drugs are recognised as victims, rather than treated as offenders, won the criminal defence award. This was her second LALY, having received the young legal aid lawyer award in 2007. Aika explained that she had brought her son to the ceremony ‘so he would know why I can’t always be there to do what he wants me to’.
Looking back to when the LALYs were launched, Jenny Beck, co-chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG), which organises the awards, said: ‘None of us could have predicted that 16 years on, we would have seen great swathes of essential advice and support removed entirely from legal aid. The fact that people on the fringes of society, the poor and disempowered, would not even have sufficient access to justice to learn of their rights would literally have been unthinkable back then.’
Noting the devastating effects of being unable to get simple legal advice, Beck urged the government to listen to legal aid lawyers as it carries out the post-implementation review of LASPO. ‘We have no axe to grind. We want to work with you and we do know what we are talking about,’ she said.
Among the gloom, Beck highlighted successes, including the Law Centres Network’s victorious High Court challenge over the housing possession court duty scheme contracts and the restoration of immigration legal aid for separated and unaccompanied migrant children, thanks to Islington Law Centre and others.
She celebrated the ‘exceptional, dedicated and talented’ lawyers still coming into the profession, in particular the inspirational Justice First Fellows, many of whom were present, and led a warm tribute to Sheila Donn of Philcox Gray, the winner of last year’s family (public) award, who died recently.
‘There can’t be anybody in the room who doesn’t feel beleaguered, but tonight is our chance to regroup and re-energise, so we can continue to do what we do best – protecting those whose voices can’t otherwise be heard and making our country a fairer one,’ said Beck, handing over to broadcaster Anna Jones and Baroness Doreen Lawrence, whose son Stephen was murdered in South London 25 years ago, who presented the awards.
Legal aid newcomer sponsored by Friends of LALY18
Lewis was one of the lead solicitors in a successful challenge to a new Home Office policy of disregarding torture by non-state agents when considering whether asylum-seekers should be detained. One supporter said: ‘Lewis shows what can be achieved with ability, hard graft and no little bravery … he is an inspiration to the next generation of trainees.’ Accepting the award, he said: ‘At a time like this, when the hostile environment is getting worse, immigration and asylum is an area where we have to fight back, and I’m happy to play my part.’
Children’s rights sponsored by Anthony Gold
Dan was praised for his incredible work in education, community care and public law. A mother who had battled for years to get support for her six children with disabilities and complex needs said: ‘The first time I read an appeal for court written by Dan, years of stress and frustration simply melted away. I honestly felt lighter and I smiled for the first time in weeks.’
Legal aid barrister sponsored by The Bar Council
Martha is head of Coram Chambers, co-chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children and has been a family legal aid barrister for nearly 40 years. She campaigns, sets precedents, holds public bodies to account, ensures families are not broken up when they don’t need to be, and fights to ensure that children’s best interests are at the fore. Described as ‘brilliant’, ‘unchanging’ and ‘lacking pomposity’, supporters said she is ‘completely lovely’ with vulnerable clients, but ‘fierce and unafraid’ in court.
Family including mediation sponsored by Resolution
Creighton & Partners
Tony was praised for his unshakeable commitment to the most vulnerable children and young people. One supporter said he travels long distances to take instructions from his often troubled and damaged young clients, because he wants them to ‘see the face of the person’ who is representing them, and he has a knack of bringing even the most hostile young clients around to trust him.
Social and welfare sponsored by Tikit
Coram Children’s Legal Centre
Sophie has led Coram’s immigration casework for the past five years, working for children and young people in asylum and human rights cases, many of whom are victims of trafficking and abuse. Model Sophie Dahl, who asked her to help a 17-year-old Syrian boy, said: ‘She’s a great lawyer and a great human.’ Accepting the award, Sophie said the UK immigration and asylum process is ‘unforgiving’ and the Home Office’s attitude has not changed since the Windrush scandal. ‘The hostile environment remains very hostile,’ she commented.
Practice management sponsored by Accesspoint
Adam’s work was described as the ‘bedrock’ of Tuckers and his ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ was credited with securing the survival of the business and achieving financial stability, despite 40 per cent fee cuts in real terms. One supporter said working with Adam gave him the ‘confidence that it is still possible to do legal aid work without ending up in a debtor’s prison or an early grave’. Adam said: ‘We stand behind the people who are doing amazing work at the coalface.’
Legal aid firm/not-for-profit agency sponsored by The Law Society
Ealing Law Centre
Ealing Law Centre was set up five years ago in what would otherwise have been an advice desert. Local MP Virendra Sharma praised its vital, life-changing work for people who are at crisis point. On behalf of the centre, Vicky Fewkes said: ‘We provide what legal aid should be providing but is no longer provided by the Legal Aid Agency.’
Access to justice through IT sponsored by The Legal Education Foundation
CaseRatio is a software package developed for criminal defence firms, which aims to increase speed and efficiency and allows collaboration between firms, police station representatives and advocates. Developed by Tuckers, the firm makes the software freely available to other defence firms. Back on the stage, this time with colleague Chirag Pareek, Adam Makepeace said IT had ‘limitless potential’ to improve access to justice, but the challenge was getting people to use it.
Criminal defence sponsored by DG Legal
Just for Kids Law
Aika has specialised in youth justice work throughout her 17-year career. She leads the criminal defence team at Just for Kids Law, which she co-founded in 2006. Last April, it became the first UK charity to hold a criminal legal aid contract. She is driven by her determination to bring systemic change that benefits all children and young people caught up in the criminal justice system.
Housing sponsored by Garden Court Chambers
Giles, aka housing law blogger Nearly Legal, was described as a ‘housing law legend’. During the past year, he has been active in housing law reform, working with Karen Buck MP on her Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill, which should get royal assent in early 2019. Accepting the award, he said ‘housing safety’ is at the core of what needs to be addressed after the Grenfell Tower fire. ‘Housing is fundamental to everything … if you haven’t got a safe home everything is at risk.’
Public law sponsored by Irwin Mitchell
Described as ‘a dogged champion of women and an inspiration to women’, the ‘indefatigable’ Harriet has had an incredible year: the Supreme Court upheld human rights as a remedy for victims where the police have failed to investigate sexual and violent crimes; the High Court ruled that disclosing the criminal records of women convicted of prostitution offences, when they had been trafficked and groomed into sex work, was a breach of their article 8 rights; and she led the first successful challenge to a Parole Board decision in the Worboys case.
Outstanding achievement sponsored by Matrix Chambers
Sir Andrew McFarlane
Left to right: Anna Jones, Sir Andrew McFarlane and Baroness Doreen Lawrence
Called to the bar in 1977, Sir Andrew McFarlane took silk in 1998, was appointed to the High Court in 2005 and the Court of Appeal in 2011 and will become president of the Family Division in a few days’ time. Lesser-known facts about him are that he has a pet donkey and was an aspiring magician.
His career in family law was set after being sent as a junior barrister to Nottingham to act for a distraught mother whose children had been summarily removed on the issue of wardship proceedings. He later said of the case: ‘I could not believe that the state could simply walk into someone’s home and remove their children before giving them notice and allowing them to be heard in court. The impact on me of realising that not only could this happen under the law, but that it was a fairly regular occurrence, is hard to overstate.’
In 1991, he and David Hershman wrote Children Law and Practice, published on the day the Children Act 1989 came into force. From 2003 to 2005, Sir Andrew was chair of the Family Law Bar Association, where he recalled his reaction to proposed cuts the then Labour government was seeking to make to the graduated fee scheme: ‘How dare they do that,’ he said at the time, adding that he could not possibly say that now he was a judge.
Accepting the award with humility, he said: ‘I don’t deserve an outstanding achievement award for my career as a legal aid lawyer. I was the same as everyone else who is a legal aid lawyer ... I was just a hack. I got on and did it.’
As a judge, he said, he could no longer comment on government policy, but said he was a ‘real champion’ of LAPG and pledged to cheer its members on. Though he will be the first president to have practised family legal aid, he said there were several other High Court judges who had had legal aid careers. ‘So, there are people at the heart of the judiciary who understand the journey you are on now and respect it deeply and want to champion your continued involvement in this work and thank you for it.’
The Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards are organised by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group. Legal Action is media partner to the awards.
PHOTOGRAPHS: Robert Aberman; Richard Gray/Rugfoot Industries