As the unsung heroes of legal aid enjoyed an evening to celebrate the often life-changing impact of the work they do for their clients, there came a call for lawyers to speak out about the stress, burnout and trauma they often suffer. Catherine Baksi reports.
At the 17th Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards in London last week, in the 70th anniversary year of legal aid, the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) gave three Special Awards to district judge and ‘legend among mental health lawyers’, Anselm Eldergill, and the ‘dynamic duo’, One Pump Court barrister, Rachel Francis, and Irwin Mitchell solicitor, Oliver Carter, the former co-chairs of Young Legal Aid Lawyers.
Special Awards winners: Rachel Francis, Oliver Carter and District Judge Anselm Eldergill
The recipients of the awards, sponsored by Doughty Street Chambers, were selected by LAPG to recognise ‘wholly exceptional people’ who are ‘true champions of access to justice’.
Accepting her award, Francis said: ‘We are in a time of unique pressure on our profession as a result of sustained legal aid cuts, increased caseloads and increasingly traumatic cases.’ She told the 500-strong audience, which included the then legal aid minister, Paul Maynard, and two senior officials from the Ministry of Justice: ‘On a daily basis we bear witness collectively to the enormity of our clients’ suffering, to the atrocities that are perpetrated against them by individuals and by repeated failings by the state.’
‘We bear witness to the government, the media, hate groups undermining our clients’ dignity, cutting their services and throwing their rights in the gutter.’ All this, on top of dealing with the Legal Aid Agency’s bureaucracy and troublesome IT systems and government policy changes, she remarked, ‘takes its toll’ and ‘leaves a mark’. ‘It is time to call that out; time to acknowledge that our stress is real, our burnout is real and our vicarious trauma is real,’ she said.
She told colleagues that they need to learn to share the pressure they are under without feeling ashamed and to support each other by improving work patterns and supervision, ‘to give courage and hope to each other because this work is bloody, bloody hard and we need each other to get through’.
Quoting the feminist writer Audre Lorde, Francis said: ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ She added: ‘That is our call to arms.’
The renowned human rights barrister and Labour peer, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, who presented the awards, spoke of her pride in the work being done by young legal aid lawyers. ‘I was there in the good days when we were able to make a living,’ she said, before slamming the funding cuts.
‘I cannot forgive the likes of Chris Grayling and Liz Truss, two former lord chancellors, for cutting the legal aid budget,’ she said, or governments who have turned a deaf ear to warnings about the consequences.
‘Entitlement to legal aid should be written on everybody’s hearts,’ said Baroness Kennedy, warning that democracy ‘is in serious trouble’ if access to justice is only available for the privileged.
The work done by commercial and legal aid lawyers, she said, ‘is all part of the same tapestry’ and where one part of the system deprives people of justice, the whole system is diminished in the eyes of the world. She added: ‘All of us have to be the guardians of the rule of law and of human rights. All power to your elbow.’
Compèring the event, broadcaster Anna Jones introduced the 16 inspirational women and nine men nominated in the individual categories. LAPG co-chair Jenny Beck paid tribute to them all and quipped that the LALYs have been around for so long, they are ‘as much a part of the season as Ascot and Henley, only with fewer hats, better frocks and a lot more fun’.
She encouraged everyone present to ‘celebrate the everyday miracles made possible by legal aid’, but lamented the fact that cuts meant there were ‘too many people we can’t help’. She said: ‘If this is what we can achieve despite the most restricted circumstances, just imagine what we could achieve if our work was properly funded.’
Beck called on colleagues to never stop fighting for better access to justice, but said positively: ‘Let us never stop celebrating the people we can help. Let us never stop shouting about the magic that legal aid can work in people’s lives.’
Legal aid newcomer sponsored by Friends of LALY19
A colleague accepts the legal aid newcomer award for Una Morris (pictured below)
Garden Court Chambers
Una was called to the bar in 2012 and is co-convenor of Garden Court’s civil liberties team, and an active member of the INQUEST Lawyers Group and the Police Action Lawyers Group. In support of her nomination, she was praised for thinking quickly on her feet and her ability to ‘compete with seniors and silks with many more years’ seniority, and still get fantastic results’. Unfortunately, she was not able to be present for her moment in the sun.
Children’s rights sponsored by Anthony Gold
Edward Taylor (pictured below) couldn't attend the ceremony, here the award is accepted on his behalf
Edward has developed a specialism in the area of age assessments, acting for unaccompanied child asylum-seekers whose ages are disputed by the Home Office. He was praised for dealing with children who are vulnerable, scared, depressed and suffering the effects of ill treatment. In his first year of practice, he had conduct of AS v Kent CC, the leading case on age assessments. Unfortunately, he was not able to be present to collect his award.
Legal aid barrister sponsored by The Bar Council
Left to right: Anna Jones, Joanne Cecil and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC
Garden Court Chambers
The chair of the Criminal Bar Association, Chris Henley QC, described Joanne as ‘probably the most influential criminal barrister working today’. She is at the heart of key policy debates and her commitment to access to justice was described as extraordinary. With a particular passion for youth justice, she has been involved in nearly every piece of strategic litigation in recent years in that area. She was instrumental in the crowdfunding campaign to provide every MP with a copy of the Secret Barrister’s book. Asked what effect it had had, she said: ‘We have had lots of nice words from government, but not a great deal of action.’
Family, including mediation sponsored by Resolution
Left to right: Anna Jones, Philip Wilkins and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC
Hudgell & Partners
Most of Philip’s clients are parents involved in care proceedings facing the loss of their children. He acted for one learning-disabled mother who would have lacked capacity were it not for his ability to communicate with her and win her trust. One supporter said: ‘Even parents in the darkest pits of despair or drug abuse, out of all the solicitors I know, he is most likely to find a way to engage them.’
Social welfare law sponsored by Tikit
Left to right: Anna Jones, William Ford and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC
William handles housing, community care, public law and social security cases, and has a particular interest in ensuring that EU migrants have access to benefits and services. He was praised for his excellent communication skills, and ability to win the trust of even those who have experienced torture and are suffering mental and physical health problems. He said he had had two children during the course of one of his cases, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, and he was ‘bloody relieved’ when it was all over.
Legal aid practice management sponsored by Accesspoint
Sally Thompson speaks to Anna Jones
Luqmani Thompson & Partners
Sally was nominated for running the highly-regarded immigration firm for 20 years, ensuring it can fulfil its guiding principle of delivering access to justice for its clients. Her work ‘reflects the essence of the unsung heroine of unsung heroes in the quintessential small legal aid environment’, according to one supporter, and she was praised for implementing practical systems to enable the firm to remain commercially viable while delivering the highest-quality advice. Accepting the award, she echoed Rachel Francis’s concern about the impact that the work had on lawyers’ mental health and praised her team for making her look good.
Legal aid firm/not-for-profit agency sponsored by The Law Society
The team from Child Poverty Action Group with Anna Jones and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC
Child Poverty Action Group
CPAG is a charity that, under its public law legal aid contract, conducts high-profile strategic judicial review cases relating to welfare benefits. The award recognised the team’s ‘vital role in challenging welfare benefits unfairness in the highest courts, and for providing direct help to those in direst need’. CPAG has brought a string of challenges to welfare benefit cuts, the two-child rule, the benefit cap, the bedroom tax for those with disabilities, and disability living allowance. CPAG solicitor Carla Clarke highlighted the importance of recognising the work done by welfare rights and other advisers, as well as lawyers. She said: ‘The only reason I can do the cases I do, is because of those people who support me and provide me with the technical knowledge.’ She also paid tribute to CPAG’s clients who agree to be part of lengthy strategic litigation.
Access to justice through IT sponsored by The Legal Education Foundation
GT Stewart receives the award for FormShare
FormShare (GT Stewart)
Much police station work is done at a loss, and it was this that prompted leading criminal defence firm GT Stewart to create FormShare, with Tikit P4W. Rather than taking handwritten notes, a digital form is completed by police station advisers, which creates a time record that is instantly encrypted, and opens a new client record. Accepting the award, GT Stewart’s Melanie Krudy said that no money is made on police station work, but the lawyers do it for their clients. She said using FormShare was ‘a way to keep going and survive’.
Criminal defence sponsored by DG Legal
Lydia Dagostino takes home the criminal defence award
Lydia has specialised in public order and protest-related work throughout her career, and is acting for Extinction Rebellion activists. She is a duty solicitor and coordinator of the non-state, non-police legal teams in the Undercover Policing Inquiry, representing core participants. She was described as ‘entirely unsung, and quite exceptional’.
Public law sponsored by Irwin Mitchell
Raja Rajeswaran Uruthiravinayagan speaks to Anna Jones.
Raja Rajeswaran Uruthiravinayagan
Raja, who fled the civil war in Sri Lanka when he was 13, was praised for his dedication to securing access to justice for migrants with irregular immigration status, who are often victims of torture, abuse and trafficking. He has had a string of notable cases, including R (FB and another) v Secretary of State for the Home Department, which challenged the Home Office’s hard removals window policy and led to its suspension. One QC described him as ‘fearless’, adding: ‘He works at the coalface where the work is hardest.’ Accepting his award he said: ‘Legal aid lawyers are the defenders of freedom – they are freedom fighters.’
Outstanding achievement sponsored by Matrix Chambers
Paul Bowen QC: 'Question everything. Fear no-one. Prepare, prepare, prepare.'
Paul Bowen QC
Paul Bowen QC, of Brick Court Chambers, was recognised for his legal aid and pro bono work over the course of his 28-year career. Called to the bar in 1993 and taking silk in 2012, he was recognised particularly for his public law and human rights work in cases involving free speech and open justice, mentally disordered and incapacitated individuals, access to justice, inquests and deaths in custody, and assisted dying.
Among his many notable cases, he acted in the right to die and assisted suicide cases brought by Debbie Purdy and Tony Nicklinson.
Sir James Munby, the former president of the Family Division, wrote: ‘It is difficult to think of anyone else who has made as great a contribution as he has to those areas of practice to which he is committed.’
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, parliamentary commissioner for standards at the House of Lords and former president of The Law Society, said: ‘I don’t think Paul has ever heard about an injustice without trying to see how it could be challenged.’
His clients also paid tribute to him. Dr Sara Ryan, whom he represented at the inquest into the death of her son, Connor Sparrowhawk, following his death in an NHS hospital, said: ‘We will forever be grateful to Paul for his immense skill, knowledge of the law and kindness.’
Tony Nicklinson’s wife, Jane, said: ‘Paul made Tony’s wish to challenge the law on assisted suicide a reality, something I shall be eternally grateful for. It was a testing time for us all but the dedication and sheer brilliance of Paul made it just a little easier on us all.’
Bowen said he was ‘thrilled and honoured beyond words’ to receive the award, and added: ‘I confess I knew in advance, and was sworn to secrecy, but I was still surprised to hear my name read out.’
Directing the audience to give themselves a round of applause, he said: ‘For me, the legal aid world is peopled by many heroes – all of you.’ And honouring some of his heroes, who were present, he paid tribute to Sara Ryan and Graham and Wendy Enderby, whom he also represented.
He recalled: ‘Six years ago last Thursday, Sara’s son, Connor Sparrowhawk, known to the family as Laughing Boy or LB – lover of London buses, Eddie Stobart lorries and Chunky Stan the dog – died while detained in an NHS hospital. He was 18.’
‘Sara’s campaign to establish the truth about his entirely preventable death has inspired many others to press for improved community services for learning disabled people and greater accountability when their loved ones die in institutions that are supposed to care for them.’
He explained that in 1994, the Enderbys took into their home a man with learning disabilities, known to mental health lawyers as HL. He had been cared for in Bournewood hospital for 30 years before going to live with Graham and Wendy. But three years later, his psychiatrist decided to readmit him to hospital, and Graham and Wendy were forbidden from seeing him or having any contact with him.
‘Their fight to have him returned home went to the European Court of Human Rights, where they achieved a famous victory, establishing important rights for detained incapacitated patients and leading to major legislative change.’
‘It was my privilege to represent my heroes, and indeed every client I have represented over the years.’
Bowen said: ‘[HL’s] case would not have been possible without legal aid. Sara’s case should have been funded by legal aid, but wasn’t. Legal aid is one of the jewels in our crown, but we can’t take it for granted: we have to fight for it, and keep fighting for it.’
He thanked the LALY organisers and judges, his professional colleagues and clients, and his wife and children, and dedicated his award to two people who were not present – his mum Juliet, who died in 2015, and his father Hank, who died in 2017 – telling them: ‘I am who you made me.’
Ending, he offered these tips for young legal aid lawyers: ‘Question everything. Fear no one. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Shut up and sit down while you are ahead.’
The Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards are organised by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group. Legal Action is media partner to the awards.
AWARDS CEREMONY PHOTOGRAPHS: Robert Aberman (RA); Richard Gray/Rugfoot Photos (RG)