Sue James reports on the wonderful 20th anniversary Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards, which took place on 12 July, leaving everyone who attended feeling inspired, re-energised and uplifted at the sheer commitment and brilliance of those who dedicate themselves to a career in legal aid.
All the LALY winners celebrate their achievement!
‘I can’t believe I’m saying this, but welcome to the 20th anniversary of the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards,’ Jenny Beck QC (Hon), co-chair of Legal Aid Practitioners Group, announced at the start of the ceremony. The first in-person ceremony since 2019 was sold out and the 600 people in the room responded to being together with all the enthusiasm and applause you would expect. Although the last two online LALYs have been incredible, there is no substitute for being there in person, hearing those inspirational stories, and feeling the LALY love. Well done Team LALY!
Jenny reminded the crowd that despite the challenges legal aid lawyers continue to face, the awards are to celebrate all that is right with legal aid: ‘No matter how bad things are – and they are pretty bad – for two decades the LALY awards have remained a bright spot, a chance for us to acknowledge the truth about legal aid work and why the work we do matters.’
A warm tribute was paid to co-founder Fiona Bawdon (above centre with Team LALY members, Jenny Beck (L) and Rohini Teather (R)), who Jenny described as ‘the very heart and soul of the LALYS’. She told the audience that the last 20 years wouldn’t have been possible without her. There is no doubt that Fiona really does sum up all that is brilliant about the awards – warm, funny, committed, passionate, she is a true legal aid champion!
Channel 4 broadcaster and author Symeon Brown did a fantastic job of compèring the evening for the first time. He asked the audience to ‘go easy on me’, but there was never any doubt he was in control of the mic. Supported by the brilliant Baroness Kennedy, ‘aka Helena Kennedy QC’, they presented the awards with a generosity and playfulness that was fitting for this spectacular evening.
Helena told the audience: ‘I have been practising as a legal aid lawyer for 50 years. I look around at this audience of really fab lawyers, and just look at the amount of women that are here. When I started at the bar only six per cent of those going into practice were women. Look at the fabulous women who are here – and the fabulous men too – and look at the diversity.’
I, along with everyone in the room I think, was struck by how many winners expressed the privilege they feel to be a legal aid lawyer. It was a special night and being a legal aid lawyer is a special job – and long may you all continue to do it.
Young Legal Aid Lawyers
Marcia Willis Stewart QC (Hon)
There were two special ‘winner of winner’ awards for the 20th anniversary, to honour an organisation and an individual, chosen from among all the former winners, that continue to work at the coalface of legal aid and encapsulate everything that the awards were set up to recognise.
The first WoW award went to the inspirational Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL). Founded in 2005 by Laura Janes, who accepted the award, it won its first outstanding achievement LALY in 2009 and continues to thrive with 4,500 members. Jenny asked Laura if she thought the organisation she created would go on to be such a force. ‘Not in a million years, absolutely no way,’ she replied. ‘YLAL began as a single-issue campaign in the back room of an office in Harlesden where I was doing my training contract way back in 2005. Within just weeks of starting that training contract I realised that the job required two things that law school had not prepared me for: a massive box of tissues, both for my clients and then for me after they had gone; and, secondly, a whole load of extra fire in your belly, not just for your clients’ rights but to fight the bureaucracy, frustrations and cuts in legal aid.’
Laura ended with a call on everyone in the room to double down on their commitment to the next generation, to give them practical support: ‘I will start. I will buy a year’s subscription for Legal Action magazine to the first YLAL who wants it.’
The second WoW went to Marcia Willis Stewart QC (Hon), managing director of Birnberg Peirce, who collected her award alongside YLAL. Marcia, who won her first award for public law in 2015, was described as ‘a role model, a champion of aspiring lawyers from poorer backgrounds, and known for her warmth and compassion as well as her excellent legal skills’. Acting for bereaved families in actions against the state, including Hillsborough and Grenfell, her work is political, hard-fought and of wide significance. Marcia, speaking about age and longevity – in comparison with the youthful YLAL standing alongside her – said there was ‘a wonderful Jamaican saying: “The older the moon the brighter it shines.”’
Marcia echoed Laura’s sentiments about supporting up-and-coming legal aid lawyers and asked the audience to ‘have a moment to think about all the people we have loved and lost’.
‘Long live legal aid,’ she told the audience before leaving the stage.
Legal aid newcomer sponsored by Friends of LALY22
Garden Court North Chambers
Ciara is an active member of YLAL and trustee of Greater Manchester Law Centre. She specialises in inquests and inquiries, and was praised for her ability to ‘balance empathy, professionalism and resilience’. She was joined by one of her clients, who had surprised her by coming along to the ceremony. Asked what it felt like to see Ciara win the award, she said: ‘It means everything. It is phenomenal you won. I am really pleased.’
Symeon asked what it was like to hear her client’s reaction. ‘It’s really touching,’ Ciara replied. ‘I, like so many legal aid lawyers, am just really lucky clients are generally pretty fantastic … they are the best of us, they cope so fantastically with the most insane circumstances. And so, I feel really privileged.’
Legal aid support staffer sponsored by Accesspoint
Garden Court Chambers
This was a new award for 2022, giving recognition to the people working behind the scenes in many different ways. The calibre of finalists was so high that there were two winners, David Neale and Lesley Kennedy-Neal. David, a former barrister turned legal researcher, was described as a ‘legend and absolute saint’, especially for his work on Albanian children asylum cases. Lesley, at Wilson Solicitors for 32 years, was described as the ‘heart and soul of the organisation’. In reply to the question what had kept her there for so long, she replied: ‘The people, they are all fantastic and do wonderful work. I just support them.’
Disability rights sponsored by Bidwell Henderson
Anna won the award to huge applause. She is known for her inquest and Court of Protection work, and for winning damages for children who are failed by social services.
Described as ‘a legal aid legend’, Anna responded: ‘That’s not how I would describe myself. I have had some fantastic clients and colleagues and I have dealt with some really heartbreaking inquests over the last few years … but it’s a team effort. I couldn’t have done it without them.’
Family law sponsored by Resolution
The Family Law Company
Grace was commended for ‘getting justice for her clients in desperate need and giving a voice to those who are otherwise voiceless in legal proceedings’. One case highlighted to support the award was that of a woman who spoke no English and wasn’t able to understand the proceedings. Asked if this was common, Grace replied: ‘I think it’s incredibly widespread, and that case highlighted to me just how someone like that is completely voiceless – and I want to give a big shout out to all in this room. I know every one of you is doing the same for your clients day in and day out.’
Criminal defence sponsored by Doughty Street Chambers
Hodge Jones & Allen
Laura defended two of the Colston Four, acquitted of criminal damage over the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol in June 2020. She told the audience: ‘Working on that case was a privilege, without question … So many people out there don’t get to choose their vocation because there are so many barriers out there – gender, race, class. So, to be able to be involved in that case was truly a privilege. But long may we fight for what’s right, fight for access to justice, and fight for a better system.’
Symeon asked Laura what she thought of the outcome being referred for review by the attorney general. ‘Bring it on,’ she replied.
Legal aid barrister sponsored by The Bar Council
One Pump Court
Amean, the first British Yemeni barrister in England and Wales, was announced the winner of the award to huge cheers from the audience. ‘You have made history tonight,’ said Symeon, ‘tell us about your journey to the law.’
‘Growing up in a predominantly working-class area with high crime in Liverpool, I only know too frequently how the law operates when it is not enforced in a way that it ought to be enforced. Being stopped by the police was a regular occurrence for me … So, a background of those experiences really motivated me to give back and help people in very similar circumstances,’ he told the audience.
Legal aid firm/not-for-profit agency sponsored by The Law Society
UCL Integrated Legal Advice Clinic (UCL iLAC)
UCL iLAC is thought to be the first legal advice clinic to hold a legal aid contract. It started life in 2016 as a pop-up pro bono service in an East London GP surgery. Six years later, it has its own premises, two solicitors and legal aid contracts in community care and housing law.
Accepting the award, Rachel Knowles, UCL iLAC’s head of legal practice said: ‘I really wanted to create a place where we could train new legal aid lawyers who stay in their career and pull them away from the dark side of corporate law.’
Regional legal aid firm/not-for-profit agency sponsored by The Legal Education Foundation
Johnson Astills is an all-female management, Leicester-based firm specialising in criminal defence and family work. The firm was set up when Helen Johnson was a single parent with a three-year-old. ‘It’s been a long, difficult journey and the firm has changed a lot but we have stayed true to our original goals, which were to manage our firm differently and to give voice to vulnerable clients,’ she told the audience.
Public law sponsored by One Pump Court
Coram Children’s Legal Centre
Qaisar is head of education law at Coram. Working there for over a decade, he has built Coram’s education practice from four caseworkers to 12, across four offices. Described as fearless in his approach, he has helped to shape education law by bringing cases of wide significance.
Asked what challenges he found working with young people during the pandemic, Qaisar replied: ‘A lot of the children we help have mental health difficulties and being isolated at home made that worse … helping them and getting them back on track, especially those who have been written off, is a huge privilege for me.’
He concluded by asking to ‘give a big shout out to my dad’, to a rousing cheer from the audience.
Social welfare law sponsored by DG Legal
Chris works mainly with Special Immigration Appeals Commission cases, described as ‘a uniquely complex and challenging area of immigration law,’ often involving closed hearings that neither the client nor lawyer can attend. Chris explained to the audience the difficulties that this type of work throws up: ‘You don’t know the case against your client, you just have the gist of it, it’s very scant … you have to ask [them], “OK, tell me everything you have ever done in your life” and then work out if anything is dodgy.’
Described as ‘superhuman’ and going above and very much beyond, in one case Chris was ready to go to the Turkey/Syria border to personally oversee the transfer of a seriously ill child.
‘How do you even manage to do this work without breaking the law yourself?’ he was asked. ‘Good question,’ he replied. ‘It’s very cheesy, but my wife is very supportive of me. She home-schooled the children. We are a good team.’
Housing law sponsored by Garden Court Chambers
Miles & Partners
Rajea was a popular choice for the housing law award, receiving it with a huge roar from the crowd. She told the audience that having grown up in East London, she remained dedicated to helping her local community, who live in some of the most overcrowded and unsuitable conditions in Britain. We heard that many of her clients have complex mental and physical needs, others have a history of modern slavery or are survivors of war or have been street homeless. Asked what this has been like for her, she said: ‘It’s been a tough journey.’
Outstanding achievement sponsored by Matrix Chambers
Doughty Street Chambers
The theme of housing law remained for the outstanding achievement award with Zia receiving this prestigious accolade to a standing ovation. He has argued housing cases at every level and been at the forefront of developing housing law, but still continues to do the coalface county court work. He was described as ‘creative and composed in the eye of a litigation storm’ as well as ‘humble, kind and supportive of colleagues’. It was revealed that when Zia wins a case, which happens often, his preferred way of celebrating is ‘with a nice cup of tea and a Sicilian cheesecake’.
Taking the mic, Zia said: ‘I was going to start with a joke and a song, but my daughter said, “Absolutely not.” But, I will give you the first line, and I think it was John Lennon who said: “A legal aid lawyer is something to be …” He also might have gone on to say: “You do sterling work for a miserly fee.”’ To which the audience erupted with laughter.
Zia told the audience he was ‘honoured, humbled and bemused’ by the award. ‘Honoured and humbled because of the quality of legal aid lawyers in the room tonight … and bemused because I am actually just doing my job.’
He continued to make the audience laugh and show the warmth for which he was commended by his clients and colleagues, by telling a few of the jokes that he had told his daughter he wouldn’t. I think, by the laughs from the audience, they are worth repeating: ‘Well, I was going to say, this is my time estimate and I was going to breach it. And I was going to say this is my last point, and then I was going to add another 10.’
Zia’s final words of the night made me laugh a lot, as I have been told them many times myself: ‘My children say to me, “No more talking about housing law.”’ Although, I’m not sure if it really is possible!