‘The pandemic has highlighted exactly why we need social justice lawyers who doggedly fight for their clients, and those are the lawyers we are celebrating this evening,’ said Jenny Beck, co-chair of Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG), at the start of the awards. ‘We may not look it in our glad-rags but legal aid lawyers are tired, if not dog tired, and something has to change. Our government needs to start not just listening but acting.’
Dogs featured heavily in this year’s celebration of legal aid lawyers, as well as families and friends. Being a legal aid lawyer is often a family affair, and our partners, children and friends share the highs and the lows. It was lovely to see Saul Bawdon in the studio, his 11th year of joining his mum, Fiona – co-founder and co-organiser of the LALYs – to be a part of Team LALY.
Sky News presenter Anna Jones, introducing the second sparkling lockdown LALY awards, told the audience that her co-presenter, social justice campaigner David Challen, wasn’t able to attend because he was self-isolating, but that Chrisann Jarrett, co-founder of the migrant charity We Belong, had heroically stepped in at the last minute. Chrisann told the audience: ‘It’s really important to have a tried and trusted lawyer on your side.’
Legal aid lawyers feel deep conviction for their clients and in their cases. These awards highlight the incredible, often life-changing work that is done. During the pandemic, lawyers have often been the only contact that some clients have had. The awards are an opportunity to raise the profile of legal aid and legal aid lawyers as well as celebrate their fantastic achievements. A recurring theme throughout the evening was the inspirational work that had been done all through the pandemic to defend the rights of vulnerable migrants, one of the hardest-hit communities.
Before the awards, I wanted to know how the finalists were feeling. Alice Irving at Doughty Street Chambers, shortlisted for the newcomer award, tweeted: ‘I am so lucky to be a part of such an incredible legal aid community.’ Adrian Brazier from Barking & Dagenham Citizens Advice, shortlisted in the housing law category, tweeted: ‘An honour and a privilege to be a finalist, I’m so humbled to be shortlisted, especially during the pandemic where lives have been turned upside down even more so than before.’ Jeinsen Lam from South West London Law Centres, again shortlisted in the housing category, said: ‘The beauty of the LALYs is that they are not about individuals but rather about the collective efforts inspired by a shared belief that our clients deserve so much more, and a better future is possible.’
Oliver Conway at Oliver Fisher Solicitors, shortlisted in the family law category, said he was ‘honoured to be a finalist for the legal aid equivalent of the Oscars. Legal aid lawyers are defenders of the public and the often-forgotten pillar of the welfare state.’ Russell Conway, who admitted to having ‘some skin in the game’ (being Oliver’s dad), tweeted: ‘Lawyers do a ridiculously hard job for scant reward. Long hours, stressed clients and CCMS to deal with among a great many other challenges. LALY 21 is the oasis in the desert of legal aid provision.’
I also asked Team LALY how they were feeling. LAPG’s Kate Pasfield and Chris Minnoch were a mixture of excitement and nerves, and Rohini Teather was ‘blown away by the warmth and the camaraderie of the awards’. Chris told me the next morning that he had sent the video of the ceremony to the CEO of the Legal Aid Agency and ‘politely suggested she shared it with all her staff to remind them that legal aid lawyers are incredible’.
It was inspirational to hear about the brilliant work that legal aid lawyers had been doing during such a difficult year – mostly in lockdown. Thank you, Team LALY, for the sparkle and the fizz; for turning an ordinary day into something special. I hope that we can celebrate in person next year – perhaps with a new category, as suggested by @LegalAidLacey on Twitter: dogs of justice.
I’ll leave you with the words of Anna Jones: ‘Even if you don’t win, being selected is a huge achievement.’ I agree. Take a quiet moment to read your nomination and all those lovely supporting letters from clients and colleagues – you make a difference, you really do.
Disability rights sponsored by Bidwell Henderson
Kirsty Stuart, Irwin Mitchell
A new award for 2021, Kirsty won the disability rights award for her work with urgent medical treatment cases. Families described her as a beacon of hope and a godsend. When asked by Anna how the last year had been, acting for her clients in care homes, Kirsty replied: ‘Super tough.’ She told the audience: ‘It is a real honour to represent the clients that I do and for them to put their trust in me as a lawyer and to open up in their darkest moments … I wouldn’t do anything else. I absolutely love my job.’
Social welfare law sponsored by Garden Court Chambers
Andrew Sperling, SL5 Legal/Tuckers Solicitors
Andrew specialises in judicial review, Parole Board advocacy and human rights. He is described as the ‘king of prison law’ and Anna said it was easy to see why: he co-founded the Association of Prison Lawyers, writes and trains on prison law, and has brought test cases in the Supreme Court.
Unfortunately, the studio couldn’t hear Andrew, but on Twitter he told us what he would have said: ‘It is a very special thing to win an award like this. Individual awards are slightly odd because no one can do anything on their own. My colleagues at @SL5Legal and @tuckersCivLib are wonderful.’ Later, he spoke up for the mums of the clients he represents: ‘One final word of thanks to the families (very often the mums) of our clients. You endure so much and contribute so much.’
Legal aid newcomer sponsored by CILEX
Audrey Cherryl Mogan, Garden Court Chambers
Winning the newcomer award, Audrey, a criminal defence barrister with expertise in migrant trafficking and deportation law, was praised for bringing a holistic approach to her work with young defendants. She is also co-director of Black Protest Legal Support, which grew out of the Black Lives Matter movement in June last year, after George Floyd’s death.
Anna asked how Audrey felt being recognised by her peers so early on in her career: ‘Incredible … everybody in this category, everybody who has been nominated, I know how hard we all work and all the pressures we are under. It just feels really, really nice.’
Legal aid team sponsored by Accesspoint
Matthew Gold & Co Public Law & Community Care Team
Led by Clare Jennings, the team is described as ‘a joy to work with’, bringing ‘hope and justice to people who are close to giving up’. They have had a number of successful cases including defending the rights of vulnerable migrants in accessing free school meals and asylum-seekers held at Napier Barracks.
Anna asked Clare what the team ethos was. ‘Trying to help marginalised and disadvantaged groups and using the law to make positive change in people’s lives,’ she replied. ‘Campaigning lawyers who try to make a difference.’
Legal aid barrister sponsored by The Bar Council
Tessa Buchanan, Garden Court Chambers
Tessa was praised for her new approaches in the field of housing law, notably, her strategic work with Shelter in which she rethought the issue of the ‘no DSS’ ban by landlords though the lens of discrimination. She argued that women and disabled people were disadvantaged by ‘no DSS’ policies as they were more likely to be claiming benefits. The ban was shutting people out of the private rented sector, leaving them with nowhere to go. Tessa said she ‘hoped it would have real positive change for a lot of vulnerable people’.
Family legal aid sponsored by Resolution
Cris McCurley, Ben Hoare Bell
Anna described Cris as an absolute powerhouse, hugely respected in the field of family law, and a popular winner. Cris acts for mainly Black and ethnic minority women and children who have suffered abuse, but is also a huge campaigner on these issues. Anna asked Cris what the award meant to her. ‘Everything,’ was the reply. Cris told the audience: ‘Legal aid lawyers rock.’
Public Law sponsored by DG Legal
Rakesh Singh, Public Law Project
Anna described Rakesh as a superb public lawyer who advances cases and makes those around him better. Much praise was given for his sustained work for Medical Justice on the Home Office’s ‘removal window’ policy. The policy meant that people were removed without notice and without the opportunity to access a lawyer.
Rakesh told Anna: ‘Access to justice isn’t something that is meaningless, it’s not an abstract concept. It can mean that people are protected from serious harm. It’s important and it’s important that it’s protected.’
Housing law sponsored by One Pump Court
Kathleen Cosgrove, Greater Manchester Law Centre
Kathleen leads the housing team at the Law Centre and focuses on asylum support work and homelessness gatekeeping. Described by previous LALY winner, Siobhan Taylor-Ward, on Twitter as ‘the absolute guerrilla housing queen’, Kathleen played an instrumental part in the landmark QBB case last year, halting Home Office plans to evict 4,000 migrants during the pandemic.
Another former LALY winner, James Stark, described Kathleen as ‘an outstanding housing lawyer’ who in 20 years of practice has acted for the most vulnerable, often in everyday cases on the duty scheme as well as the more high-profile cases like QBB.
Criminal defence sponsored by Doughty Street Chambers
Suzanne O’Connell, Tuckers Solicitors
Head of the Tuckers branch in Leighton, Suzanne is known for her youth work and the strong links she has built within the Somali community. The sister of one of her clients says: ‘She treats her clients with such tender care, I cannot praise her enough.’ Suzanne has been at the forefront of challenging the police use of grime music videos as evidence of links to gangs or drugs.
Suzanne told Anna: ‘The youth justice system is under enormous pressure … unfortunately it is falling apart … and we are just dealing with children.’
Legal aid firm/not-for-profit agency sponsored by The Law Society
Founded in 2018, Nottingham-based MJC Law has established a reputation for its community care, mental health and Court of Protection work. The three founders, Conor Maguire, Kate Jackson and Lauren Crow, are described collectively as trailblazers and inspirational role models.
Regional legal aid firm/not-for-profit agency sponsored by The Legal Education Foundation
Law Centre Northern Ireland
Accepting the award, director Ursula O’Hare said the Law Centre’s secrets are ‘great tenacity and creativity and an unwavering commitment to the law being available for everybody no matter what’. Asked what the award means, Ursula replied: ‘It is such an honour and a tribute to the Law Centre’s work over 40 years.’
Outstanding achievement sponsored by Matrix Chambers
Adam Hundt (Deighton Pierce Glynn) and Alex Goodman (Landmark Chambers)
For the first time in LALY history, the outstanding achievement award went to a solicitor and a barrister, Adam Hundt and Alex Goodman. Anna, describing the award as ‘the highest accolade the LALY judges can give’ said the duo worked together ‘doggedly’ to systematically challenge the Home Office’s no recourse to public funds policy, which had left many in destitution.
The pair’s most recent win in the High Court (in April of this year) was for a five-year-old British boy and his Zimbabwean-born mother, who had been unable to work during the pandemic. She said: ‘I hope that other children will not have to grow up in poverty like my child had to at times simply because his mum is not British.’
Mary Evans, speaking on video, said: ‘You fought my case as if I was the only client you had. You told me all would be well; indeed, it was well.’ Caz Hattam of The Unity Project said: ‘You show so much respect and care for the people that you work with.’ Adam and Alex are worthy winners – it is certainly an outstanding achievement to have been instrumental in changing the conditions of tens of thousands of people who previously had no recourse to public funds.