On 7 July, hundreds of supporters watched the first ever virtual Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards, determined to celebrate the life-changing work of legal aid lawyers, pandemic or not. Catherine Baksi reports.
David Challen and Anna Jones announce the winner of the new mental capacity award, Sheree Green
‘It’s going to take more than a pandemic to dampen our spirit,’ said Jenny Beck, director of Beck Fitzgerald and co-chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG), introducing the 2020 ‘lockdown LALYS’.
Undeterred by the coronavirus crisis, which did not permit the usual central London annual ceremony to honour the country’s legal aid heroes, LAPG held a virtual ceremony online
Accustomed to the remote court hearings that have become the norm under lockdown, at least 800 supporters tuned in to watch the celebration, which aired live on Tuesday evening on YouTube, hosted by Sky News presenter Anna Jones from a studio in Wapping.
‘I’ve never been prouder to be a legal aid lawyer than I have been during this most difficult of years,’ said Beck. Paying tribute to the 34 finalists, in 12 categories (including the outstanding achievement award announced on the night), she said: ‘It may be a virtual ceremony, but our pride in you has never been more real.’
Thanking colleagues, friends, family and fellow travellers, Beck said it was an honour for legal aid lawyers to serve their clients, but she had a message for the government too. ‘To the bureaucrats who hobble us and the policy-makers who disbelieve our warnings, I say “Shame on you – you can do better. Believe us when we say there’ll be no social justice in this country without us.”’
Several video montages were played during the evening, including a message from some of the judges. They said: ‘Although we can’t be physically together today, we’re together in spirit. Coming together as one community of social justice lawyers to celebrate the life-changing power of our work, fighting for access to justice, improving the lives of ordinary people and protecting the rights of the most vulnerable.’
In front of a small, socially-distanced and very smartly-dressed audience, as well as those watching online, the awards were presented by David Challen. His mother, Sally Challen, spent nine years in prison after being found guilty of murdering her abusive husband, before being released in 2019 after a successful and groundbreaking appeal.
Thanking the legal aid lawyers, solicitor and former LALY award winner Harriet Wistrich and barrister Clare Wade QC, Challen said his mother was ‘building a new life and new freedoms’.
Taking the appeal and trusting a new team of lawyers, he said, was a huge decision and took them down a long road. But, he said: ‘The fight for justice was more than worthwhile to get my mum back, to give voice to so many more victims and to help create more awareness of coercive control – it’s made a huge difference to many lives.’
Challen said he hoped that legal aid lawyers, who do ‘inspiring work’ representing vulnerable people ‘challenging a system that needs to be challenged’, get more funding.
The impact of the coronavirus crisis was ever-present, as winners spoke of the impact that it had had on them and their clients. None more so than when Niall Murphy accepted KRW Law’s award for regional legal aid firm of the year. Murphy had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and had spent 16 days on a ventilator in an induced coma.
Sheree Green, winner of the mental capacity award – a new award presented for the first time this year – spoke of the number of clients she had lost to the virus. ‘We’re hoping the worst is over, because it’s been a very sad time,’ she said.
Nicola Burgess, who heads the legal team at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), winner of the legal aid team of the year award, recalled how the centre had gone ‘above and beyond’ to make sure its clients were taken care of during the crisis – sending feeding formula to those with young children and paying for accommodation for others.
David Challen presents South West London Law Centres with its award
Patrick Marples, chief executive of South West London Law Centres, which won the legal aid firm/not-for-profit agency of the year award, warned that the COVID-19 emergency had made those who are already hard to engage even more difficult to reach. While the number of enquiries received by the centre has increased, he said he was worried that the most vulnerable had not been in touch. ‘Connectivity and access’, he said, were the challenges as the centre sought to ensure it remained ‘open and available to everyone’.
The evening was a real team effort, pulled off with only a couple of technical hitches. Wrapping up the proceedings, Jones said: ‘We hope normal LALY service will be resumed by next year and look forward to seeing you then.’
Mental capacity sponsored by Bidwell Henderson
Greenchurch Legal Services
Sheree runs her own firm in Stoke-on-Trent, and has a nationwide reputation for her Court of Protection expertise and dedication to protecting older people and other vulnerable adults from financial abuse. She was described as ‘just exceptional’ and ‘fantastic with clients’. A colleague said of her: ‘If I ever needed help, I would choose her. She doesn’t get people’s backs up, but she will not let a point go.’
Immigration and asylum sponsored by Doughty Street Chambers
Sutovic & Hartigan
Tori has been at the forefront of challenging the Home Office over attempts to forcibly remove Iraqi asylum-seekers, who fear ill treatment on return. Colleagues described her as ‘relentless’ and ‘the most unselfish lawyer I know’, and said that ‘she changes lives’. One client remarked: ‘She treated me as a fellow human being and not just another problem.’ Another said: ‘Tori saved my life. She had me released from detention and took me away from that hell. She never gave up on me.’
Legal aid newcomer sponsored by FriendsofLALY20 (crowdfunding)
Merseyside Law Centre
Siobhan qualified as a solicitor this year, specialising in housing, benefits, and asylum law, and co-founded a tenants’ union to protect the rights of renters in Liverpool. One barrister said she has ‘all the makings of a really transformative legal aid lawyer who will be an asset to the sector’. Accepting her award, she said: ‘I really wanted to help change society. I’d worked with vulnerable people for a long time and I wanted to do my best to help.’
Criminal defence sponsored by DG Legal
Philippa is a solicitor advocate and head of her firm’s human trafficking and modern slavery department. She has acted in hundreds of cases involving trafficking and forced criminality, and was one of the first defence lawyers to raise a Modern Slavery Act s45 defence.
She has a particular interest in child criminal exploitation and is regularly instructed on county lines exploitation cases.
Legal aid barrister sponsored by The Bar Council
Garden Court North
James was described as ‘a superbarrister’, with a string of successful housing cases behind him. In 2019, he won a victory in the Supreme Court, in Samuels v Birmingham City Council, despite the Legal Aid Agency’s constant refusal of funding. One of his supporters said it was thanks to his ‘intelligence, doggedness, and commitment’ that he secured ‘a landmark victory in a time of austerity’, which will help thousands of people in privately rented homes.
Family sponsored by Resolution
Miles & Partners
Kate is managing partner of her firm and runs her own demanding caseload. Most of her work involves local authority care proceedings, where she acts for parents, children and guardians. Her cases last year included securing an FGM protection order for a 10-year-old girl, in a matter where the judge said it was difficult to imagine a risk so high. She was praised as a brilliant role model to everyone, from young lawyers to her senior management colleagues.
Legal aid firm/not-for-profit agency sponsored by The Law Society
South West London Law Centres
This is the UK’s largest law centre and last year helped over 8,000 people. Its housing team is on the duty rota at three south London courts, providing last-minute advice to keep people in their homes. One housing client said: ‘Before I came here, I was suicidal. I couldn’t bear the thought of me and my son on the street. Now, I know there is a place I can come where people are willing to help.’
Regional legal aid firm/not-for-profit agency sponsored by The Legal Education Foundation
Belfast-based KRW is the largest criminal defence, human rights and public law firm in Northern Ireland. It represents people from all communities who have suffered loss or injustice as a result of Northern Ireland’s history of conflict, acting in inquests, judicial review and claims against public authorities. It is acting for families of those killed in the 1974 Birmingham and Guildford pub bombings, and for many victims of historic abuse.
Social welfare sponsored by Tikit
Edwards Duthie Shamash
Accepting the award on his birthday, Simon, who has been a housing specialist for 20 years, was described as ‘a legal aid warrior’ and ‘ebullient force of nature’. A charity working with homeless mums said that ‘his heart and humanity shine through everything he does’. A former trainee said he is ‘the best supervisor I’ve ever had’ and ‘dedicated to helping those pushed to the margins of society’. He was also praised for ‘keeping in mind the real-life consequences of bad decision-making’.
Public law sponsored by Irwin Mitchell
Swain & Co
An expert in prison law, Dean’s clients include prisoners convicted of the most serious offences: murder, extreme violence, serious sexual assault, and terrorism. He was commended for being relentlessly unafraid to put his head above the parapet, and determined to protect prisoners’ rights and hold the executive to account. A prisoner given an indeterminate sentence wrote: ‘As a result of Dean’s overwhelming support, I am now preparing for my release back into my community.’
Legal aid team sponsored by Accesspoint
Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI)
JCWI’s seven-strong, all-women team provides holistic and compassionate support. They are known for their strategic litigation and casework, which included securing leave to remain for over 100 families and individuals last year. An asylum-seeker client said: ‘I cannot describe what it feels to be treated like a human being. It made me in tears - and this is the first time I have been in tears, not by torture but by kindness.’ Another said: ‘I owe my life to JCWI.’
Outstanding achievement sponsored by Matrix
Mike McIlvaney receives the outstanding achievement award for his 'commitment, dedication...courage, compassion'
Community Law Partnership
Mike is a partner and co-founder of the Community Law Partnership in Birmingham. Passionate about the rights of the politically and socially oppressed, he embarked on a career in social welfare law and specialises in housing law.
In 2019, he won a victory in the Supreme Court for Terryann Samuels, a single mother of four. In 2011, Birmingham City Council declared his client ‘intentionally homeless’ after she fell behind on her rent due to a shortfall between that and her housing benefit. The council said the £700 a month rent was ‘affordable’ because she had ‘flexibility’ in her household budget, made up of other welfare benefits including child tax credit, which could be used to cover the shortfall.
Five Supreme Court justices unanimously ruled in her favour, stating that Ms Samuels, whose children were all under 16, should not have had to use her benefits to make up the difference because her other living expenses were ‘reasonable’.
Not only did McIlvaney have to fight the council, but he also had to battle with the Legal Aid Agency for years to secure public funding for the case, which will ultimately help thousands of others to keep their homes.
He was described as having ‘all of the qualities you’d expect in a great lawyer – commitment, dedication, extensive legal knowledge, tactical nous, courage, compassion’ – as well as the ‘doggedness and sheer belief’ that can ‘turn a good lawyer into a truly outstanding one’.
Colleagues praised his work acting for some of the most marginalised and vulnerable in society – treating them with dignity and giving them a voice, and for being ‘generous with his time’ and having ‘an endless amount of patience’. One said that ‘the legacy of his cases will help many people in years to come’; another highlighted his ‘confidence, competence and rock-like support’ and ‘unflappable personality’.
Thanking him for all that he had done for her and her children, Terryann said: ‘Mike is special – nobody believed in me, but he did.’
McIlvaney was on holiday somewhere on the West Coast of Ireland, with no internet connection, but in a pre-recorded message, he warned about the attitude of the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) and its impact on the future generation of legal aid lawyers.
While he had seen much change during his career, he said the one constant had been the attacks on legal aid. But, he said: ‘I’ve been concerned recently with the change in the institutional mind-set of LAA and the development of what seems to be a culture of denial, where the opinions and views of legal aid caseworkers – sometimes unqualified – count for more than those of experienced practitioners.’ He gave the example of Ms Samuels’s case, in which the LAA refused funding on seven occasions and only granted it after permission had been given by the Supreme Court, and only then under threat of judicial review.
Funding cuts and refusals, he said, disproportionately affect black and minority ethnic communities, stating: ‘Something has to change.’ The cuts, he said, also make it more difficult – but not impossible – to attract new legal aid lawyers.
Thanking his friends and colleagues, McIlvaney said: ‘I hope that over the course of my career I’ve been able to make some small changes for the better to the lives of the people in the community around me.’ But he added: ‘I am absolutely certain that with a properly funded legal aid scheme, this new wave of talented, socially committed and technologically savvy legal aid lawyers will make a big difference to people’s lives and make society a better and fairer place.’
The Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards are organised by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group. LAG is media partner to the awards.
LALY AWARDS PHOTOGRAPHS: Richard Gray - Rugfoot Photography