‘We are many; they are few’
The leading civil liberties firm Birnberg Peirce had a brace of winners at last month’s Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year (LALY) awards: newcomer Camilla Graham Wood; and legal aid champion Matt Foot. Both are stalwarts of the groundbreaking Justice Alliance (JA) campaign, which has mobilised support for legal aid in a way never seen before. Fiona Bawdon met them.
There were two key moments during my interview with Camilla Graham Wood and Matt Foot, which seemed to encapsulate what each has brought to the fight to save legal aid.
Camilla was a standout candidate in an exceptionally strong ‘Newcomer’ field at this year’s LALY awards. At just two years’ qualified, she impressed the judges, both with her obvious commitment to her asylum and actions-against-the-police clients, and for carrying a caseload that would do justice to someone far longer in practice.
Matt, a criminal defence solicitor, received the inaugural ‘Legal Aid Champion’ award, in recognition of his energetic campaigning against the legal aid cuts. His nomination was supported by more than a dozen organisations, which have rallied under the JA banner, and he was praised for his oratory, leadership and passion.
The moment that best encapsulated what Camilla, and fellow members of Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL), have brought to the alliance came, in fact, just after the interview had finished. I hadn’t made it as far as the bus stop, before she e-mailed a ‘Jelfie’ (of which more later) of Matt and herself, and a request that I mention JA’s petition and film in the article (see box).
With Matt, the moment was during the interview itself. Addressing the crowd at the 7 March legal aid day of action, he had recited the closing lines from Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy,’ the poem written in 1819 to mark the Peterloo Massacre.
Rise like Lions after slumberIn unvanquishable number –Shake your chains to earth like dewWhich in sleep had fallen on you –Ye are many – they are few.
‘My dad, when I was ten, bribed me to learn the whole of “The Mask of Anarchy”, which is 92 verses. It was great to finally have an opportunity to use it in my life,’ he said. Matt’s dad was, of course, Paul Foot, the investigative journalist and campaigner, who died in 2004 (Matt’s great-uncle was the former Labour leader Michael Foot). What was most telling, however, was not that Matt had used the lines in his rallying speech, but that even as he recited them (at my request) during the interview, his voice shook slightly with emotion.
Legal aid: by accident and design
While cage rattling may be in Matt’s blood, by contrast, Camilla hails from a family of neither campaigners nor lawyers. Her entry into legal aid came about ‘by accident’, she says, after a spell in Cambodia left her disillusioned about development work. ‘A lot of it seemed self-serving. You’d have these huge projects, with masses of funding, but a lot of Cambodians would say, “We don’t really know what they’re doing here. They don’t really like us.”’
One of the joys of legal aid work is that it really does transform people’s lives, she says. ‘You see the physical decline in people as they are waiting for their case to be resolved. There was a Sri Lankan asylum case, which we won recently, and he was like a different person afterwards. That fear of being sent back never goes away until you win. The change is so immediate.’
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Camilla Graham Wood
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Matt Foot
Although Matt’s entry into the law was more by design than accident, he took a fairly meandering route to get there. A self-confessed failed sports journalist, he spent time working on the Tube, for a polling company and in libraries, before finally setting his sights on a legal career. He qualified in 2000 and joined Birnberg Peirce in 2005.
Matt wasn’t burdened with the level of debt that today’s entrants face, but it was still a difficult transition. He started out as a clerk at Powell Spencer in 1996, earning £7,000 a year. ‘I did loads of police station overtime in order to survive.’ It took him nine years to pay back the £5,000 cost of his Legal Practice Course.
The rise of the ‘Jelfie’
Given his family background, it is perhaps no surprise Matt is credited with ensuring that the JA campaign focused on the impact of the cuts on clients’ lives rather than lawyers’ earnings. The battle is far from won, but JA has galvanised support for legal aid as never before. For the first time, it managed to turn the battle against cuts into something at least approximating a mass, popular movement, rather than a bunch of lawyers moaning among themselves. Matt says: ‘When we started, no one thought we could do anything. The Law Society said: “We’re not even going to campaign, because we don’t see the point.” I’m very proud that we actually woke them up.’
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January 2014 demonstration organised by Justice Alliance
Since then, there have been umpteen protests and rallies, which, thanks in large part to the appearance of both Maxine Peake (also known as Martha Costello QC in BBC 1’s legal drama ‘Silk’), and a terrifyingly lifelike papier máché replica of Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s head, attracted widespread media coverage. Work at courts around the country (including the Old Bailey) has at times ground to a halt. Miscarriage of justice victims like Paddy Hill, and the mother of Gary McKinnon, have offered vocal support. There have been videos featuring powerful client testimonies, and national treasure Stephen Fry declaring: ‘I am for justice’. (When Stephen Fry’s involvement was announced, one supporter tweeted: ‘We now literally cannot lose!’) There have been flash mobs, a petition endorsed by Joanna Lumley and protest songs by the likes of Tom Robinson.
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A Stephen Fry Jelfie
Matt says: ‘We had the dead weight of people saying you couldn’t do anything at all, and yet we managed to get to the stage, for the first time in history, where we had national action by barristers and solicitors. We took joint action with the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo). These things have never happened before. I’m very, very proud of those days, because I think without the Justice Alliance, that wouldn’t have happened.’
Camilla was instrumental in the creation of the JA film, which features not just Stephen Fry, but comedian Jo Brand and actor Tamsin Greig. Further celebrities are lined up to offer support, and a summer of activity and events is planned. For her, one of the strengths of JA is the breadth of its support. ‘The protest felt great, people spoke with such passion. You had Paddy Hill, then [criminal barrister] Ivan Lawrence, then [Shadow Lord Chancellor, Secretary of State for Justice and Shadow Minister for London] Sadiq Khan, then someone from Napo. It was such a random mix of people. It just shows, it’s such a broad issue.’
Also key to JA’s success has been its ability to marry seamlessly old school downing of tools and manning of barricades, with the power of new media, like Twitter. Whatever happens ultimately to legal aid, one of JA’s lasting legacies to the world is likely to be the invention of the word ‘Jelfie’, of which there have now been many thousands (Camilla credits her Birnberg Peirce, YLAL and JA colleague Debaleena Dasgupta with actually coining the term).1For the uninitiated, a ‘Jelfie’ is a ‘justice selfie,’ a photograph, typically a self-portrait taken by camera phone, of someone holding a notice with, for example, the words: ‘I am for justice. Are you?’, which can then be posted on Twitter and elsewhere.You can sign the Justice Alliance ‘Save Legal Aid’ petition: http://justiceallianceuk.wordpress.com/save-legal-aid-petition/.Or, watch its ‘I am for justice’ video at: http://justiceallianceuk.wordpress.com/.
Villains and heroes
Matt is a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and retains the true leftie’s eternal optimism. Just as the SWP members of my school days argued that we were just one firefighters’ strike away from the complete overthrow of capitalism, so Matt insists that we are just one prison riot away from Chris Grayling’s departure. ‘This man Grayling has said that the prisons are safe. The inspector of prisons has said they’re not safe. If there’s rioting in the summer, I think his job is on the line.’ What guarantee is there that any successor would be more enlightened? ‘None. But Grayling is a particularly hard-line, uncaring, unlistening individual,’ he says.
Matt’s rogues’ gallery would include not just Chris Grayling, but also the leaders of the Bar who ‘unforgivably’ struck a deal with the Justice Secretary over fees, just when the JA campaign seemed to be gathering unstoppable momentum. Who are his heroes? Other than his current boss, Gareth Peirce, he cites Jim Nichol, the veteran miscarriage of justice solicitor (who was also Paul Foot’s solicitor and compadre). Matt credits Jim Nichol with badgering him into becoming a lawyer: ‘He was my mentor; we go way back to my childhood.’ He also names Mike Fisher, formerly of Christian Fisher: ‘Very, very shrewd and lovely to me’; and Greg Powell, who gave him his first clerking job: ‘It was brilliant training.’
For Camilla’s part, she cites her fellow newcomers to the profession. ‘I’m sure I should choose someone very well known as my legal hero, but really it’s the other people at YLAL. I find them inspiring as they’re doing all this at the same time as starting out in their careers.’
1     For the uninitiated, a ‘Jelfie’ is a ‘justice selfie,’ a photograph, typically a self-portrait taken by camera phone, of someone holding a notice with, for example, the words: ‘I am for justice. Are you?’, which can then be posted on Twitter and elsewhere.You can sign the Justice Alliance ‘Save Legal Aid’ petition: http://justiceallianceuk.wordpress.com/save-legal-aid-petition/.Or, watch its ‘I am for justice’ video at: http://justiceallianceuk.wordpress.com/»

About the author(s)

Description: Fiona Bawdon - author
Fiona Bawdon is a freelance legal affairs journalist and founder and co-organiser of the LALY awards.