The Legal Aid Practitioners Group’s Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards are now into their 18th year and go from strength to strength despite all the challenges facing the social justice sector (of which COVID-19 is just the latest). What is it that gives this unique celebration of legal aid lawyers such staying power, and sets it apart from other legal awards ceremonies? A selection of former winners and LALY supporters explain what makes the awards so special to them.
I attended my first LALY ceremony 15 years ago and remember the sense of community and pride I felt. It is the only event that truly showcases the work of legal aid lawyers. I have had the privilege of winning two LALYS, the second came at the end of a really hard year. Receiving recognition from my peers meant so much to me and my 10-year-old son was there to see it. It is definitely one of the happiest evenings in my career to date.
Aika Stephenson, legal director, Just for Kids Law – winner, 2007 young legal aid solicitor award; winner, 2018 criminal defence award. To date, Aika is the only person to have won two individual LALY awards.
My favourite moment of the LALY awards was the year I was shortlisted, when I received a phone call from Fiona Bawdon, who organises the awards, a day before the award ceremony. I thought she was going to tell me that I had won the award and I needed to prepare a short speech for the ceremony. My heart was beating so fast. I couldn’t breathe and I was waiting for the good news. Then she said: ‘I’m just calling to check how to pronounce your name.’
The next day, when I won the 2017 award for immigration and asylum law, it was the biggest achievement of my life. The feeling of winning one of the most prestigious awards in the British legal system, with only 13 months’ PQE, can’t be described by words. I am very proud to be one of those life-changing lawyers.
Kaweh Beheshtizadeh, consultant, Fadiga & Co Ltd (pictured above with compère Anna Jones) – winner, 2017 immigration and asylum award. Kaweh is a former refugee from Iranian Kurdistan who arrived in the UK in 2004, age 23, speaking little English. He qualified as a solicitor in 2016 and stood in the 2019 general election as the Liberal Democrats candidate in Bracknell.
The LALYs will always be very special to me. Back in 2006, when just finishing my training contract, I was shortlisted in the young solicitor category, but Dr Laura Janes would go on to be the well-deserved winner that year. Nearly a decade later, in 2015, and much to my surprise, I was shortlisted and went on to win the inaugural award for children’s rights. I was invited to join the LALY judging panel in 2016 and what a great honour that was. I have been on the panel for four years and chair for the past two years. It has been such a privilege to be part of Team LALY for all these years.
What can I say about the LALYs? Well, thanks to the hard work of so many and, of course, LAPG, the LALYs are undoubtedly the pre-eminent vehicle through which we, as a community of social welfare lawyers, can celebrate, support and promote the demonstrable value that legal aid offers to people’s lives. Importantly, the LALYs give us the opportunity, once each year, to reflect on the truly stellar work that legal aid lawyers across the country carry out.
The awards ceremony itself is an exceptionally enjoyable evening where we can be proud of what we do and what our colleagues in this community are doing. We come away feeling inspired and rejuvenated to continue the fight for those individuals who need access to justice to get through or resolve their legal issue. Whatever that issue may be, we know it is a matter of fundamental importance to that person’s life, liberty and future opportunities. Many people say that the LALY awards are the highlight of the legal aid calendar, and they really are.
Noel Arnold, judge of the First-tier Tribunal (Social Entitlement Chamber) – winner (as solicitor at Coram Children’s Legal Centre) 2015 inaugural children’s rights award.
The LALYs always uplift me every year but also make me very emotional. At each ceremony, I don’t know when I’m going to have a tear in my eye or what it is that will move me, but something always does. Human endeavour, I think: a young lawyer who has maybe had to battle with adversity themselves, going on to support and win cases for disadvantaged clients; a solicitor or barrister who has given a professional lifetime to fighting on behalf of those suffering injustices or poverty; the dedication of friends and colleagues who selflessly take the time to put together outstanding submissions for nomination; the hard work of Team LALY; or just simply meeting up with old friends on the night. Everyone loves to be at the LALYs. I have seen the LALYs from all angles: as a judge; as one of the founding members; and as a person who has made and supported nominations. Being shortlisted or even winning is so important. They are a moment for personal reflection on what has been achieved and just to bask a little with other impressive nominees and feel that, maybe, it is all worthwhile.
David Emmerson, partner, Anthony Gold. David is a former chair of LAPG and was one of the original ‘gang of three’ (including legal affairs journalist Fiona Bawdon, and Richard Miller, who is now The Law Society’s head of justice) who came up with the idea for the LALY awards in 2002.
I was honoured to receive the LALY award for outstanding achievement in 2017, but I didn’t just want it to sit on my windowsill (although it looks very nice). I wanted to use it to shine a light on the importance of legal aid and its ability to transform lives. I hope that since then I have been at least a little successful in doing that by writing on the impact of legal aid cuts and campaigning for change.
Sue James, director and supervising solicitor, Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre (pictured above with compère Anna Jones and Baroness Doreen Lawrence, who presented the awards) – winner, 2017 outstanding achievement award. Sue writes a regular column for Legal Action as well as the ‘At the bar’ series, and campaigns and blogs on justice issues.
When S Chelvan’s name was called out in a room packed with lawyers at last month’s Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards, the applause was thunderous. Speaking after accepting the gong for legal aid barrister of the year 2014 for his work in one of the most politically charged areas of the law – immigration and asylum – he made no bones about why representing vulnerable people caught up in the system matters: ‘We are dealing with saving people’s lives,’ he told the audience (Mary O’Hara, ‘Legal aid barrister of the year: “it’s a very dangerous world to be gay in”’
16 July 2014).
The sense of euphoria captured in Mary O’Hara’s Guardian article provides a glimpse of the emotions running through me on that warm summer’s evening in June 2014. My pride as an immigrant and a gay man, ‘meshing the personal with the professional’, to win the award was a life-changing moment. Since 2015, as a LALY judge, I have channelled that memory when I am reading the circa 1,000 pages of nominations, to help me identify the fire burning bright within the personal narrative of nominees, to spot the ‘X factor’ jumping from the page, which takes them on to the winners’ podium.
Dr S Chelvan, barrister, No 5 Chambers – winner, 2014 legal aid barrister award. In 2019, Chelvan was awarded a PhD in Law by King’s College, London.
The LALYs are very dear to my heart for a number of reasons and from different perspectives. When asked to write this contribution, I was transported back to feeling pleasantly dazed after receiving a telephone call in spring 2009 with news that the judging panel for the LAPG Silver Jubilee awards had selected me for an outstanding achievement award. A few months later, I enjoyed a very special evening with friends and family.
I also recall my experience as a LALY judge, when former LAPG director Carol Storer really did deliver a bundle each time of over 1,000 pages, with her fetching smile, which is so hard to resist. On a serious note, I felt privileged to read about individuals’ determination, often in the face of adversity, to obtain the best possible results for their clients. The heartfelt praise from their colleagues and clients was also tremendous. Sharing these gems of information with like-minded fellow judges, negotiating and reaching decisions was both rewarding and reaffirming. It is an incredibly tough and time-consuming job, but it is absolutely worthwhile and a pleasure to witness the excitement of finalists and their supporters at the awards.
I have attended the LALYs for the past 10 years and have enjoyed each and every one of them. As legal aid lawyers, we thoroughly deserve our ‘Oscars night’, when we can celebrate in style and acknowledge the first-class services we deliver to our clients in increasingly challenging times.
I will continue to raise a glass to the superb LALYs.
Angela Jackman, partner, Simpson Millar, and senior lecturer, City Law School – winner, 2009 LAPG Silver Jubilee award. Angela is a co-author of the ‘Education: recent developments’ law and practice articles in Legal Action.
The LALYs on social media
In February 2020, Russell Conway tweeted
that his 2013 LALY trophy for social and welfare law was one of his three favourite possessions. The other two were an Arsenal corner flag, acquired for him by his dad in 1948, and a nail from the Somme, where his grandfather fought in the first world war.
Jo Renshaw, who won the same award two years later, tweeted in reply
that ‘sometimes when I am having a particularly crappy day, I do actually bring to mind the LALY award like a warm hug’.
Photos: Robert Aberman