Katy Watts qualified as a solicitor at the Public Law Project in January 2017. She was in the first cohort of The Legal Education Foundation’s Justice First Fellows. See other Justice First Fellows in the series here.
My ambition was always to work in the field of social justice. Law was a consequence of that. After graduation, my first thought was to work in the NGO world. But over the course of internships and volunteering, it became apparent how much you can achieve as a lawyer, in a different way from policy and campaigning work.
The project I set up as part of my Justice First Fellowship involves ensuring gay men with historic convictions can make use of ‘Turing’s Law’. The law – made as an amendment to the Policing and Crime Act 2017 – is named after the second world war code breaker Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952. He was posthumously pardoned in 2013.
My intention was to help with applications for pardons and to appeal refusals. However, towards the end of the project, it emerged that there was an anomaly in the act – soliciting or importuning had not been included on the list of offences that could be deleted. So, I have been working to get that changed and will be writing to the Home Secretary to ask her to amend the act to include that offence.
The best thing about being a social welfare lawyer is that it is an interesting and satisfying way to improve people’s lives. Law is definitive. If you win, it is an effective way to achieve tangible and practical change for individuals.
On the flipside, achieving change as a lawyer can be frustrating. You have to work within the existing legal framework. It can feel a bit like you are chipping away at the edges. This has only increased in the current political climate. In addition, funding constraints make it difficult to be as effective as you could otherwise be.
One of my first clients was a child victim of trafficking. When I met him he was detained, extremely withdrawn and spoke no English. I managed to get him released from detention and given proper support. I saw him again less than a year later, and he was a changed person – happy, chatty and enjoying going to college. That’s what this job is for.
PLP director Jo Hickman is a particular inspiration to me. Working with her has shown me how just how much a lawyer can do. She pushes at the boundaries of what most lawyers would think possible, and then goes even further. She’s brilliant.
The rule of law is meaningless without access to justice. If individuals can’t access the courts, they have no means of enforcing their rights.
Is a great thing to train lawyers to have the skills to practice in an environment where legal aid is less and less available, and where you need to think of other ways to fund cases.
JFF fellows are given training on media engagement, fundraising and social media – things that all legal aid lawyers should know about as we have to get better at communicating about the work we do in order to seek alternative funding.