If there’s a silver lining to be found from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s surely the fact that it’s suddenly made the things we’ve thought about doing, but never quite got around to, an actual necessity. Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) has talked for years about making our events more accessible, and COVID-19 has finally given us the impetus. Many readers will be familiar with the unfairness of knowing that an appealing-sounding event will be impossible to attend due to distance, caring responsibilities or other commitments. Even accounting for the advances in technology that we now take for granted, when you have an organisation like ours, made up of regional groups that hold physical meetings, there are inevitably going to be some – namely those in the major cities – who will be better served than others – predominantly those in more rural areas.
A large part of YLAL’s raison d’être is to provide a network for like-minded people beginning their careers in the sector. Enabling our members to find out about how to break into the legal aid world and make connections with others in turn helps to increase social mobility and diversity, and we’re failing our members if we’re not able to reach them.
Our physical meetings are one of YLAL’s great boons: they offer our members an opportunity to meet others with similar interests and hear in person from their legal aid heroes. We’ve intermittently discussed recording our events, or live-streaming them, but something has always held us back from taking affirmative action. Had COVID-19 not come along when it did, we’d probably still be holding events in much the same way as we’ve always done, and we would have carried on putting off doing them any differently.
Like many organisations, YLAL decided to see the pandemic as an opportunity. We pride ourselves on our ability to ‘pivot’: to recognise emerging issues, adapt to changing conditions and take urgent action in our members’ interests. Quickly recognising that COVID-19 would make our physical meetings impossible, the committee WhatsApp group began bubbling away with ideas about how we could carry on doing them when we were no longer able to see and meet with our members in person. With the hard work of various committee members, and with the generous assistance of chambers including 39 Essex and Garden Court, and our current host, 1 Pump Court, we successfully overcame our technological fears and embraced Zoom. #YLALVirtual was born, heralding the start of some of the best-attended events in our history. We’ve held bi-weekly online meetings since 8 April 2020 and witnessed lively, thought-provoking discussions, inspiring speakers and engaged audiences – all from the comfort of our own homes.
But back to the subject of getting around to doing things. We’ve long wanted to expand the YLAL network into Wales. Wales was hit hard by the introduction in 2013 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, and according to the LawWorks submission to the Commission on Justice in Wales
(2018), by 2018 the number of firms providing legal aid in Wales had fallen by 29 per cent, compared with 20 per cent in England. While there are welcome signs of green shoots of recovery, large swathes of the country remain legal advice deserts. Many individuals in Wales on low incomes who find themselves facing legal issues will struggle to obtain the local face-to-face advice to which they’re legally entitled.
On 24 June 2020, we hosted our first YLAL Cymru event
. We were joined by a stellar line-up: Angharad Price of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Wales, JJ Costello, the head of housing services at Shelter Cymru, Hussein Said, a trainee solicitor and Justice First Fellow at the Speakeasy Law Centre in Cardiff, and Annie Bannister and Sue James of the North Wales Law Centre Project. The speakers discussed the impact of legal advice deserts on vulnerable individuals including those with disabilities, the homeless, and those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, and how the COVID-19 emergency has exacerbated these issues. The meeting was chaired by Crash Wigley, a Cardiff-based YLAL member and future pupil barrister at Civitas Law, and kindly hosted by Legal News Wales (which provided significant support). It was exciting to see the Zoom chatbox alive with offers of support for initiatives such as the North Wales Law Centre Project and other proposals to collaborate to address legal aid droughts and deserts in Wales.
It was a big moment for YLAL and, again, one that may not have come to pass – at least for some time – had the necessity to hold it virtually not existed.
We are grateful for the support that the nascent YLAL Cymru branch is receiving from the sector. Plans are afoot for another #YLALVirtual meeting later this year, focusing on asylum and immigration law issues in Wales. Our hope is that YLAL Cymru will be a vibrant campaigning force and support network for aspiring and junior legal aid lawyers in Wales. We will keep you posted on how it develops.