A refugee from Iran was among those honoured at the 15th Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards at a celebration in London last night. Kaweh Beheshtizadeh, of specialist London immigration firm Barnes Harrild & Dyer, arrived in the UK in 2004, speaking little English, but qualified as a solicitor in 2016.
Accepting his award he expressed gratitude to the legal aid lawyer who had helped him to obtain refugee status and inspired him to become a legal aid lawyer himself.
Many of the awards went to lawyers representing clients on the fringes of society who garner little sympathy among politicians, the general public and tabloid press, including asylum seekers, prisoners, those at risk of radicalisation and the homeless.
In one of the most political acceptance speeches of the evening pioneering public Keith Lomax who was one of the first solicitors to appreciate the significance of the Human Rights Act, bringing the case of Connors to establish Article 8 rights for gypsies and travellers bemoaned the result of the Brexit vote in the last year’s referendum. ‘The human cost of leaving the EU hurts me. I’m an internationalist. I don’t believe in the state … no borders, no states, we’re all human,’ he said.
Receiving the public law award, he said: ‘Public law is the simplest thing in the world; it ain’t right, so you fix it’.
Winning the criminal law award, Graeme Hydari, of Hodge Jones & Allen, who specialises in dealing with cases involving defendants with autism, called for judges to be educated in the impact that conditions like autism have on defendants.
Philip Rule, of No5 Chambers, who picked up the legal aid barrister award, said that being ‘risk averse’ and locking up people without understanding that they can change, society was failing them and could not claim to be a ‘civilised democracy’.
The award for outstanding achievement went to housing solicitor at Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre and Legal Voice columnist, Sue James. Accepting it, she paid tribute to all legal aid lawyers and said: ‘Being a legal aid takes courage, brains and, most definitely, a heart’.
Highlighting the role of law centres lawyers, she said: ‘We move from the foodbank to the Supreme Court,’ and the importance of clients having access to housing advice, said ‘good housing changes lives’.
Sue called on the 500-strong audience to ‘be radical again, like in the seventies, and inspire the next generation of legal aid lawyers’.
Opening the evening, Jenny Beck, co-chair of the Legal Aid Practitioner’s Group, Beck praised the work of North Kensington Law Centre, the Housing Law Practitioners Association and Shelter for their response to the Grenfell Tower disaster, which killed at least 80 people.
She expressed the hope that the truth behind the fire would come out ‘as quickly as due process allows’, sparing the families and survivors from additional grief.
‘We do know however long it takes, there will be lawyers standing beside the families, every step of the way, despite a system which often seems stacked against giving the bereaved equality of arms,’ she said.
And quoting Tottenham MP David Lammy, she added: ‘If there isn’t hope, there has to be justice.’
‘Too often when things go wrong, the victims and their families have to fight to achieve justice, and only succeed thanks to the doggedness and determination of their lawyers,’ she said, highlighting the three decade campaign by the lawyers for the Hillsborough families, honoured at last year’s event, and the on-going campaign on behalf of the relatives of those who died in the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings.
As legal aid lawyers battle year on year with the same struggles, Beck said there are ‘happy endings. The Leigh Day Three are innocent’. The room responded with warm applause in support of Martyn Day, senior partner of the firm, who was present at the event, and who had been among the three lawyers at the firm cleared of all any wrong-doing by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal after a seven-week hearing into handling of against the British army.
Beck highlighted other ‘important victories’ over cuts to legal aid for prisoners and the policy of deport first, appeal later, both of which involved previous LALY winners. ‘Sometimes the plucky underdog comes out on top,’ she said.
The twelve awards were, for the tenth year running presented by Baroness Doreen Lawrence, mother of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, who said she wanted to ‘support the unsung work of legal aid lawyers’.
Among the guests were Labour MP and former director of public prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s former shadow legal aid minister, now leading a review into the legal aid cuts, Lord Bach and the attorney general’s former pro bono envoy, Michael Napier.
Winners and guests left with goodie bags containing fidget spinners and sticks of rock, with the words ‘legal aid rocks’ running through it. And in true Willy Wonka style, some bags contained golden tickets, entitling the finder to other treats.
Full list of winners
Legal Aid Newcomer: Tom Royston, Garden Court North
Immigration and Asylum: Kaweh Beheshtizadeh, Barnes Harrild and Dyer
Legal Aid Barrister: Philip Rule, No5 Chambers
Family private (including mediation): Mary Shaw, David Gray Solicitors
Family Public: Sheila Donne, Philcox Gray Solicitors
Social and Welfare: Stuart Luke, Bhatia Best
Public Law: Keith Lomax, Minton Morrill Solicitors
Criminal Defence: Graeme Hydari, Hodge Jones & Allen
Children’s Rights: Solange Valdez-Symonds, Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens/ Migrant Resource Centre
Legal Aid Firm/Not for Profit Agency: Community Law Partnership
Access to justice through IT: Advicenow, Law for Life
Outstanding achievement: Sue James, Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre
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