“Our terms as YLAL co-chairs are coming to an end, but we will continue the fight for access to justice.”
We are sad to be approaching the end of our terms as co-chairs of Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL). We are so pleased to have been given the opportunity to chair the YLAL committee during such a pivotal time.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation for junior legal aid lawyers and our clients was difficult. Through our #TakeYourMPToWork
campaign, run in partnership with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid
, hundreds of our members contacted their MPs and invited them to visit the legal aid front line. Dozens of MPs from across the political spectrum saw first-hand the vital work that legal aid lawyers do on a daily basis. The 2019 General Election saw us running our #3Pledges4Justice campaign, which made it on to BBC Question Time, with our now committee member, Hafsah Hussain, raising it in her question to the panel.
This past year has thrown up untold challenges. COVID-19 has changed everything, from the way we live our lives to the way we practise law and the way we campaign for justice. The virus has catapulted the justice system into the 21st century, forcing firms, chambers and courts to embrace technology at a previously unthinkable speed. We surely speak for the whole country when we say we are looking forward to life getting back to normal, but there have been some positive changes that we hope will continue.
Ideally, it will remain possible for certain short hearings to take place remotely, to avoid excessive travelling. However, we are very concerned about the impact on justice of remote attendance and will fiercely resist any attempts to expand upon or continue this practice post-COVID-19 in hearings where the client is in attendance.
The pandemic also forced us to rethink how we hold our meetings. We switched from holding in-person meetings in London, Birmingham, Leeds, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield, to a biweekly programme of virtual events. We are delighted with the increased accessibility this has ensured, allowing members from across the country to attend events, and are exploring how to retain the benefits when we return to physical meetings once again.
Our annual Young Lawyers Making Change one-day conference, jointly curated with the Justice First Fellowship and the Public Law Project, had to be postponed due to the first national lockdown. However, it returned stronger than ever with a two-week ‘festival’ in August 2020
. The programme was packed full of inspiring lawyers to motivate us to continue the fight for justice.
We surveyed our members to see how COVID-19 and the lockdown had impacted on them, and produced two reports (in April
and May 2020
) outlining our concerns about issues affecting junior lawyers. Throughout these reports, we made recommendations for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the Legal Aid Agency, representative bodies and individual firms and chambers, imploring them to take action to protect junior lawyers, who are all too often in the most precarious and insecure positions.
While it may feel like the pandemic has been the only thing that’s happened in the past year, there have been many other challenges to access to justice, and YLAL has campaigned tirelessly on these. When the MoJ introduced regulations last year that threatened the sustainability of the asylum and immigration legal aid sector,1Civil Legal Aid (Remuneration) (Amendment) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 SI No 515.
YLAL launched our #APrayerForLegalAid campaign. Our members sent thousands of messages to MPs calling on them to sign a fatal motion in parliament
. This was signed by 138 MPs from eight parties and won us a meeting with the legal aid minister (then Alex Chalk MP). Our members’ campaigning combined with strategic litigation and the support of the sector led to the regulations being scrapped.
The SQE has been given final approval by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and is due to be introduced in September 2021. YLAL believes SQE will be devastating for social mobility: those without financial means will find it even more difficult to access the profession and the qualifying work experience requirements are ripe for abuse by unscrupulous law firms, which can take advantage of junior lawyers who are desperate to qualify. YLAL will continue to campaign for the protection of junior entrants into the solicitors’ profession.
We are grateful to the YLAL committee and to our members for putting their trust in us to lead such a brilliant organisation. We are excited to continue supporting YLAL, and look forward to welcoming the new chairing team and carrying on the fight for access to justice..