Fiona Bawdon looks back over 20 years of the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards.
Time: early autumn, 2002, 6.30 pm-ish.
Place: a pub in Clerkenwell, a few doors along from the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) offices.
Dramatis personae: Richard Miller, LAPG director; David Emmerson, LAPG chair and partner and family solicitor at Edwards Duthie; Fiona Bawdon, editor of (now defunct) Independent Lawyer magazine.
On the table: a couple of beers; an indifferent white wine; cheese and onion crisps and a packet of peanuts.
On the agenda: creating an awards ceremony to celebrate the unsung heroes of legal aid.
The first-ever Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards ceremony, staged in April 2003, a few months after that pub meeting, was a relatively modest affair: just five awards (crime, civil, family, newcomer, and outstanding achievement), one sponsor (Jordan Publishing) and around 100 guests. The broadcaster John Howard did the honours as compère, with Michael Mansfield QC acting as presenter. There were no trophies. Winners had to make do with a framed certificate, signed by the chair of the judging panel Cherie Booth QC (it wasn’t until 2005 that winners’ certificates were replaced with trophies). As the evening wore on, the certificate frames started to come apart, and must have been in pieces when the winners got them home. Luckily, everything else about the LALYs has been rather longer-lasting.
Cherie – a respected human rights barrister (as well as wife of then prime minister Tony Blair) – was unable to attend the inaugural ceremony, so as chair of the judging panel she sent a message of support instead, which compère John Howard read out:
Legal aid practitioners are often maligned, underpaid and misunderstood in the press. These awards highlight the true story of the dedication, determination and professionalism of men and women up and down the country, who provide a vital service to those in need.
As Team LALY gears up for the 20th anniversary event, a few things have changed in the intervening years: there are now 12 award categories and the event attracts more than 500 guests. However, the purpose of the awards remains just as Cherie described it in 2003. The LALYs continue to be an unashamed celebration of lawyers at the legal aid coalface, whose work transforms lives, but who remain underpaid, undervalued and too often unrecognised.
The inaugural LALY awards in 2003 (l-r): Richard Egan (winner: crime), Nicola Mackintosh QC (Hon) (winner: civil), John Howard (compère), Mark Jewels (winner: family), Michael Mansfield QC (presenter), Belinda Greenwood (winner: newcomer) and Jeffrey Gordon (winner: outstanding achievement) (photo: Robert Aberman)
Cherie would continue to chair the LALY judging panel, present the awards and support the LALYs in different ways for around a decade. She was often maligned in the press during this period, but our experience of her could not have been more positive. Right from the start, Cherie was an enthusiastic, engaged and inclusive panel chair, and clearly very at home among fellow lawyers.
In 2005, she and her fellow judges were only given a few days between receiving the nominations bundle and the judging meeting itself. Working long hours editing Independent Lawyer and having two primary-school-age children, I only just managed to finish reading the bundle in time for the meeting on the Monday afternoon, and felt quite proud that I had done so. As we sat around the table in the judging room discussing the entries, it was clear that Cherie had also found time to read every word, despite her many other commitments, which on this occasion included attending the funeral of Pope John Paul II on the Friday and the wedding of Prince Charles (to Camilla Parker Bowles) on the Saturday.
That’s the kind of dedication we have come to expect from our LALY judges, who give up hours of their time and have to make incredibly tough decisions about finalists and winners.
As organisers of the first-ever LALYs, Richard, David and I were so unsure whether they would capture the profession’s imagination and become an annual fixture, we didn’t think to print the year (2003) on the promotional material or nomination form. Any doubts about whether the idea would fly were speedily (and permanently) dispelled once we started reading the first crop of nominations.
Among the winners at the inaugural awards was Nicola Mackintosh, a mental capacity and community care solicitor. Nicola’s nomination was submitted by Pamela Coughlan, a client paralysed from the shoulders down after a road accident. In a precedent-setting case, Nicola fought successfully to keep Pamela in the care home that the local authority had promised would be hers for life. Nicola’s nomination was also supported by the owner of a flower stall in a Plymouth market, who wrote: ‘I believe in the law and in the majesty of justice, and the reason I am sure of our system is because I happened to meet Nicola Mackintosh.’ Twenty years on, I still can’t read those words without welling up – and being in awe of this profession.
Another winner in 2003 was Richard Egan. A jobbing criminal defence solicitor, Richard found himself up against the might of the American government, the FBI and the CIA when his client, Lotfi Raissi, an Algerian pilot, was falsely accused of training the September 11 hijackers. After Richard systematically and painstakingly demolished the raft of evidence that the Americans claimed they had linking his client to the 9/11 attacks, all charges were dropped or dismissed.
Belinda Greenwood won the 2003 trainee solicitor award having switched to law following a 10-year career in mental health social services. She told compère John Howard that the biggest challenge she faced as a mental health lawyer was ‘representing people who sometimes have no chance of discharge because there is nowhere to place them. It can be difficult to explain to clients how dangerous they are.’ Belinda was honoured by the LALY judges at the start of her legal career; 20 years on, she continues to specialise in mental health law. Like Richard and Nicola, she remains at the legal aid coalface.
In 2014, Nicola Mackintosh became one of an ever-growing list of LALY winners to be made honorary QCs (along with the likes of Saimo Chahal, Marcia Willis Stewart, Jenny Beck and others). We can also boast a similar number of QCs of the non-honorary kind among our winners, including Leslie Thomas, Imran Khan, Marc Willers, Adam Straw and others.
In 20 years, the LALYs have had just two compères, such is the loyalty that the awards generate. Broadcaster John Howard, who pioneered the event with us, came up with the idea of having a brief, informal chat with each of the winners as they come up on stage to receive their award, to ask about their work. That remains a feature of the LALYs to this day, and sets us apart from many other awards ceremonies, which can seem soulless and formulaic by comparison. These unscripted moments – as we saw with Belinda (above) – are often the most moving and revealing, giving an insight into the joy and pain that is the professional lot of every legal aid lawyer.
Having done so much to help establish the awards and cement their reputation, John Howard passed the LALY compère baton to broadcaster Anna Jones in 2014. Under Anna’s stewardship, the awards continued to flourish and grew to become the biggest, best-attended night in the legal aid calendar. Until 2020, that is. Lockdown presented Team LALY with arguably its toughest challenge. 2020 was also the year we had more reason than ever to appreciate Anna’s professionalism, good humour, calmness under pressure – and live broadcasting skills.
Our usual in-person gathering was off the cards due to COVID-19 restrictions, but cancellation or even postponement was unthinkable. We needed to come up with an alternative LALY20 celebration that would be worthy of a legal aid profession under pressure as never before. A glorified Zoom call was definitely not an option.
The 2020 outstanding achievement award winner, Mike McIlvaney of Community Law Partnership (on-screen), flanked by presenter David Challen and compère Anna Jones (photo: Richard Gray – Rugfoot Photography)
In six short weeks – with the invaluable assistance of Grace Gibbons at Bounce Video – Team LALY reinvented the entire event as a virtual ceremony, which was broadcast live on YouTube, with winners streaming in to chat to Anna and accept their awards. Alongside Anna on stage to announce the winners’ names was justice campaigner David Challen. David’s mum, Sally, had served nine years in prison for murder before she was released after a legally ground-breaking appeal. David spoke about how his legal team, led by Harriet Wistrich (another former LALY winner), had succeeded in bringing his mum home.
In 2021, with the pandemic still raging, we did the same thing all over again, with another virtual ceremony. Hours before LALY21 was due to be broadcast live, David Challen – who had kindly agreed to present the awards for us again – was pinged by track and trace. Regretfully, he had to stand down and isolate. In the kind of show-must-go-on spirit that embodies the LALYs, Chrisann Jarrett, CEO of We Belong, a youth-led organisation campaigning for the rights of young migrants, agreed to step into the presenter role. Just as David had done the previous year, Chrisann spoke about the impact of legal aid lawyers on her, her family and the lives of many other young migrants.
Of the original LALY organiser triumvirate, Richard Miller and David Emmerson have both moved on to new roles (as head of the Law Society justice team and family law partner at Anthony Gold Solicitors respectively). Both are regular attendees of the ceremony and continue to support the LALYs in myriad ways.
Legal aid legend Carol Storer took over from Richard at LAPG in 2008, before stepping down in 2018, to be replaced by Chris Minnoch, LAPG’s CEO and my current LALY co-organiser. Chris responds to every crisis and mad idea of mine (including having dogs at last year’s ceremony) with a wry joke and a more sensible suggestion.
Some of the organising team may have changed, but the LALY flame burns just as brightly. Under Chris’s stalwart leadership, LAPG staff and committee members continue to pour their energies into making this non-profit-making, spirit-lifting event a success on behalf of the entire legal aid profession. The LALYs continue to thrive after two decades because the legal aid profession has taken the awards to its heart.
There will be some changes at this year’s event, which is our first in-person gathering since 2019. We will, of course, be marking the 20th anniversary of the awards. When I called a former winner to ask her to help with an element of this year’s awards, before I had the chance to explain what would be involved, her immediate response was: ‘Anything for the LALYs, Fiona. You know that.’
The LALY22 winners will be announced at a live, in-person ceremony in London on 12 July 2022. Tickets can be purchased from: www.lapg.co.uk/laly-tickets