Authors:Jack Sheard
Last updated:2024-07-11
A night of unabashed celebration and qualified optimism
Marc Bloomfield
Description: LALY24 logo
On the day after Labour’s election victory, the social justice community gathered for its annual celebration of the work of legal aid lawyers. Jack Sheard reports from the 22nd LALY awards ceremony.
Description: The LALY24 winners
Abuzz with enthusiasm and awash with excitement, the 22nd Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards drew 500 committed people from across the country to a celebration of the best our social justice sector can provide. Broadcaster Symeon Brown returned to host the ceremony for the third time and the enthusiasm in the room was palpable. The audience’s gusto was understandable: with 34 finalists shortlisted in 11 award categories, the stakes were high. But as their testimonials showed, each had won respect and admiration from their peers, clients, colleagues and communities. To have made the shortlist was a remarkable achievement.
Such heroic legal aid professionals cannot be separated from the political landscape in which they work, and this was recognised from the outset, with Dame Karen Buck receiving the Legal Aid Practitioners Group special award for her commitment to housing justice. This year, the political aspects of the LALYs had been amplified by the election: the polls had closed not even 24 hours earlier, with many in the room, including finalists, having stayed up all night to watch the results come in. The Labour victory had brought a feeling of relief, as Toufique Hossain, winner of the outstanding achievement award, put it: ‘Nothing can be as bad as the former government, with its utter disdain for human rights.’
But what of the new one? Keir Starmer himself even made a brief appearance during the ceremony, in the form of photographs from his own time as a LALY judge and ceremony guest that were shown on stage. Will he remember his roots? One nominee told me: ‘I live in hope.’ There was a feeling of qualified optimism – the new government has the chance to improve the legal aid world. Many winners had advice for the new ministers. Whether they will follow it or not remains to be seen, but legal aid lawyers act without fear or favour, whoever is in government. Hossain said :’We should all celebrate tonight – but tomorrow, our pre-action letters will be drafted with the same passion as they were today – just hopefully a little less often.’
Nothing in Westminster could distract from the main theme of the event: the importance of legal aid work itself. At times, the otherwise lively audience fell silent as they heard details of the finalists’ harrowing but utterly essential work. But this only reinforced the enthusiasm for those with the grit to take it on. Every finalist was met with warm applause, every winner with cheers and whooping.
The sense of community was strong. At times, it may feel as though legal aid work is a solitary struggle against overwhelming forces, but at the LALYs, it was clear this is not the case. Members of Public Interest Law Centre, winner of the legal aid firm/not-for-profit award, were there in such numbers that they could barely fit on the stage. Time and again, winners thanked not just their colleagues, but the wider legal aid community. ‘It’s all about collaboration,’ said Sophie Naftalin, the public law award winner. ‘We can’t do this work without the really great support of our fellow lawyers.’
This sense of community is at the heart not just of the awards, but of legal aid itself. I spoke to Jenny Newton, the family legal aid winner, who said: ‘What this evening demonstrates is that the legal aid community provides inspiration, commitment and dedication, up and down the country. There are so many of us, and none of us exist in a vacuum. We all form a patchwork: everyone in legal aid, in whatever area, plays a part. Legal aid is not an easy option – we’ve all be let down by government policy – but we all form a part of this amazing community of lawyers whose action and care contributes to an incredible field of law. I am so proud to work within this community.’
LAPG special award
Dame Karen Buck
Description: Dame Karen Buck
This rare prize, awarded by the LAPG board and appearing only for the sixth time in LALY history, honours truly special friends of legal aid, whose contribution and support goes way above and beyond. Dame Karen Buck, the former MP for Westminster North who stood down before the recent election, was recognised for unswerving public service, having chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid and then co-chaired its successor on Access to Justice. Her true legacy is the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018, which she successfully guided through parliament in an ever-challenging process likened to the nine circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno.
Accepting her award, Dame Karen said there was ‘a considerable way to go’ in restoring legal aid to its rightful place. These have been hard years, but the new government offered an ‘opportunity to reset’. She was really grateful to those – both lawyers and politicians – who are ‘keeping the flame alive’ for legal aid, and hoped her successors would be able to carry it forwards.
Legal aid newcomer sponsored by Friends of LALY24
Ollie Persey
Garden Court Chambers
Description: Ollie Persey and Jenny Beck KC (Hon)
Ollie’s work in community care and education law has led a range of significant High Court cases in the past year, and his nomination was supported by a raft of solicitors, barristers, charity organisations, clients, and even a baroness. ‘Wow,’ he said accepting his award. ‘I’m a barrister, so it’s professionally embarrassing to be speechless.’ For him, the real joy had been discovering how much his work is appreciated: ‘I’m keeping the nice things clients wrote about me in a drawer for a rainy day.’
Legal aid support staffer/support team sponsored by Accesspoint
Family billing team, AFG Law
Description: Symeon Brown_ Family billing team of AFG Law and Jenny Beck KC (Hon)
The Bolton-based solicitors firm AFG had been hit by a cyber-attack that left them at risk of losing over 3,000 client files. The family billing team stepped up, working in overdrive to solve this problem, with Jamie Carysforth, Alex Ayres and Peter Edwards spending their evenings and weekends restoring the files, even working on Christmas day. Their work not only helped keep the firm afloat financially, but it also ensured it could continue to serve its clients. ‘It’s not just us,’ said Jamie, as he accepted the award, ‘it’s the whole team – admin, IT, finance, everyone. We couldn’t do this without them.’
Housing law sponsored by Leigh Day
Rose Pritchard
The Community Law Partnership
Description: Symeon Brown_ Rose Pritchard and Jenny Beck KC (Hon)
Rose is an ‘archetypal coalface social justice lawyer’, working for her clients day in, day out for nearly four decades. Her meticulous and caring work defending the housing rights of Birmingham’s residents has been characterised by clear-eyed care and robust advice, from the duty desk all the way to the Court of Appeal. She emphasised a clear priority for the new government: it has to ‘bring housing law back into focus, as it is of absolute importance. Without a decent proper home, people can’t have decent proper lives.’
Criminal defence sponsored by One Pump Court
Amy Cox
Sonn Macmillan Walker
Description: Symeon Brown_ Amy Cox and Jenny Beck KC (Hon)
Amy has a national reputation for defending a whole range of serious cases: murder, firearms, trafficking, fraud and drugs. Her nomination was supported by a KC who described her as a phenomenon, and a grateful client who said Amy had laughed and cried with her throughout the hardest two years of her life. Amy was ‘a bit overwhelmed’ to receive her award, but took the opportunity to call on parliament to provide further funding, so that junior criminal practitioners don’t leave the profession.
Legal aid barrister sponsored by The Bar Council
Mani Singh Basi
Description: Symeon Brown_ Mani Singh Basi and Jenny Beck KC (Hon)
Mani was recognised for his work in stranded spouse and child abduction cases, striving to reunite families separated across borders. One of his cases had seen children left in Iran. Mani battled through 20 High Court hearings and a further appeal, ensuring that those children could be reunited with their mother back in the UK. Asked how he managed such emotive cases, he said that their sensitive nature made his practice ‘very difficult to navigate – but justice is required’.
Family legal aid including children’s rights sponsored by Resolution
Jenny Newton
TV Edwards
Description: Jenny Newton
Jenny specialises in fighting for children with non-accidental injuries and severe malnutrition, work that she does ‘without fuss or fanfare’. Clients praised her vision and foresight, which allowed her to strive for family reconciliation wherever possible. Asked how her practice had changed through her three decades of service, she emphasised that it was not just legal aid that had suffered; a lack of funding for services across the board had contributed to the cases she worked. But that just highlighted the importance of the legal aid community. Collecting her trophy, she held it up to the audience, saying: ‘There’s a part of everyone in this award.’
Disability rights sponsored by Communicourt
Tam Gill
Gledhill Gill Solicitors
Description: Symeon Brown and Tam Gill
Tam’s work as a mental health solicitor spans both the Mental Health Act 1983 and the criminal justice system, and has been characterised by long-term relationships with her clients, some spanning decades. She was thanked by one client as ‘the glue that held me together’ when everyone else turned away from him. Her expertise in complex forensic cases is enhanced by her earlier career as a biomedical scientist. Asked how she’d come to change career, she explained that, while working on a scientific research project, she had encountered a mental health solicitor on a ward and heard ‘choirs of angels, trumpets, the whole lot’. In that moment, she knew she had found her calling and since then has not looked back.
Social welfare law sponsored by Doughty Street Chambers
Esme Madill
Islington Law Centre
Description: Symeon Brown_ Esme Madill and Jenny Beck KC (Hon)
Esme was singled out for co-founding the Breaking the Chains project, supporting young Albanian asylum-seekers. The young people she fights for had made a film to support her nomination, praising her championing of the rule of law and her care for her clients: ‘She treats us all as if we were her own children.’ A number of them were also in the audience to see their champion win her award. Esme thanked her team for support – ‘they’re the best’ – and dedicated the award to the co-founder of Breaking the Chains, who sadly could not attend due to illness.
Legal aid firm/not-for-profit agency sponsored by The Law Society
Public Interest Law Centre
Description: Symeon Brown and the Public Interest Law Centre team
Public Interest Law Centre focuses on state accountability, housing and community spaces, and racial justice, including work on the COVID-19 inquiry. It has two main strands to its work, both of which champion the rights of marginalised individuals and involve collaborating with grassroots campaigns and activists. Its unique approach – described as an ‘intentional model’ – allows it to ‘use the law as a tactic’, fitting it to social movements as necessary, to help them to make change. This emboldens and empowers citizens to stand up to the state whenever needed.
Regional legal aid firm/not-for-profit agency sponsored by The Legal Education Foundation
TRP Solicitors
Description: Symeon Brown with Katayoon Zare and Margaret Finch of TRP Solicitors
TRP is a specialist immigration firm from Birmingham, with an enthusiasm for taking on the most complicated cases, even when other firms have given up. Its work has been described as ‘tireless’, with ‘unwavering commitment and dedication’, despite a system that makes it harder and harder to keep going. TRP’s Margaret Finch described receiving the award as ‘really moving’ and had the same message for the new prime minister as they had for the previous seven in the firm's 20-year history: ‘Take the callousness out of immigration and asylum decision-making.’
Public law sponsored by DG Legal
Sophie Naftalin
Bhatt Murphy
Description: Symeon Brown and Sophie Naftalin
Sophie’s women’s rights work has been described as groundbreaking, and has included representing the family of Kellie Sutton, whose self-inflicted death was ruled by an inquest to be manslaughter as a result of domestic abuse. She has been described by colleagues as ‘a trailblazer and a force to be reckoned with’. Asked about how she navigated such particularly horrific cases, Sophie replied: ‘It’s all about the clients. I’m just so grateful to them for letting me work their cases.’
Outstanding achievement sponsored by Matrix Chambers
Toufique Hossain
Duncan Lewis Solicitors
Description: Symeon Brown_ Toufique Hossain and Jenny Beck KC (Hon)
The outstanding achievement award this year went to the solicitor behind the Rwanda litigation, which was characterised as one of the most heavily contested cases of the past year. It was described as a ‘herculean effort’ and ‘one of the most significant legally aided cases of all time’ – ‘like working at 100 miles an hour’.
Toufique had coordinated a legal aid team across every level of the UK courts, and the European Court of Human Rights, involving up to 60 barristers and a raft of solicitors. Despite the complexity of the case, the barrage of political criticism and an ever-hostile media, Toufique had remained ‘unflappable’ in his ‘clarity of vision and strength of purpose’. His work ensuring that the Rwanda plan was subject to full legal scrutiny contributed to his description as ‘probably the most impactful litigator’ in England and Wales.
Asked about the personal toll of this case, Toufique explained that it was ‘a lot’. He and his colleagues had faced death threats and even physical attack. ‘At times, the pressure and political climate became unbearable.’ But he thanked the team he and his colleagues had built together: ‘We showed the government that we’re not going to back off.’ He also thanked his clients: ‘This was your case. It was an honour to be representing you.’
Labour is committed to scrapping the Rwanda scheme, with the prime minister declaring it ‘dead and buried’ on his first full day in the job, but Toufique acknowledged that there is always more to be done. The new government ‘has to be brave. Upholding the rule of law takes courage.’ Ultimately, however, he had a simple message: ‘Remember that governing without cruelty is possible.’
The Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards are organised by Legal Aid Practitioners Group.
LAG is media partner to the awards.
Drinks reception sponsor: Miles & Partners
General sponsor: 39 Essex Chambers