The incoming president of the family court and the campaigning lawyer who challenged the Parole Board decision to release black-cab rapist were among the lawyers honoured at last night’s Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards. Photos by Robert Aberman
Awards were presented by Baroness Doreen Lawrence OBE before an audience of 500 legal aid lawyers and other winners included the housing lawyer Giles Peaker, author of the Nearly Legal blog, and Aika Stephenson, founder of Just for Kids Law. The full list is below.
As well as representing victims of John Worboys, Harriet Wistrich has had a run of high profile successes over the last 12 months including a ruling by the High Court that disclosing the criminal records of women trafficked and groomed into sex work was a breach of their human rights; and, in the Supreme Court, upholding human rights as a remedy for victims where the police failed to investigate sexual and violent crimes. The solicitor won the public lawyer award.
Wistrich, described as ‘a dogged champion of women and an inspiration to women’, was asked how much more work had to be done to ensure assess to justice for women. ‘We are only at the beginning of trying to move forward,’ she replied; adding that she had just set up a new charity called the Centre for Women’s Justice.
The solicitor continued: ‘I’m hoping through a collaborative approach, we can bring together survivors, activists, experts and lawyers and we can work together to share our expertise in an area where women, on the one hand, are failed by the state and don’t get the opportunity for justice and, on the other, they’re often criminalised because they are victims of abuse.’
On the Worboys case, the solicitor acknowledged that the case raised difficult issues for the lawyers involved not least that prisoners’ rights were not ‘impeded by public opinion’. ‘In this particular case, the knowledge we had gained about the proceedings brought by the Metropolitan Police about the extent of this man’s offending, we were so surprised as to why the decision was made. It didn’t make sense… . It was an exceptional case and one that needed to be brought and we needed to give voice to the many, many victims of rape who have not got justice… We didn’t want to open a free-for-all against prisoners’ rights which we need to preserve.’
Lord Justice Andrew McFarlane (above), who takes over as president of the Family Division at the end of the month, won the outstanding achievement award. He will be the first former childcare legal aid lawyer to rake the top judicial office.
He paid tribute to the LALYs which was launched in 2003. ‘I can’t think that even one testimonial at some big corporate lawyers’ do in the Grosvenor Hotel would hold the attention, demonstrate the intelligence, the humanity, the integrity of a single one of the stories we have heard here tonight… . I am humbled and proud to be one of your number.’
The judge described himself as ‘a champion of legal aid’. ‘We’re not in it for the money. It is a vocation. Itis important to the state, our community and society as well. But it is important that you are not taken advantage of because you have a vocation.’
‘It is very good that we live in a country which has developed a sophisticated understanding of the importance of human rights,’ he said. ‘But those rights are no good to anybody unless people have access to them. The only way to access them is to have a key, and the key is the lawyer. Without lawyers, access to justice is just an empty phrase.’
Lord Justice Andrew McFarlane
He pointed out that he could not comment on policy matters so he ended his speech with what he described as ‘an exercise in thought transference’. ‘I’m going to think of the speech I could have given and you’re all going to think hard about what I am thinking about and at the end of transmission, I’ll put my hand up.’ The audience were then invited to cheer if they agreed with ‘what I haven’t said’. The 500-strong audience obliged with a loud cheer..
Giles Peaker was named housing lawyer of the year. He spoke of the importance of safe housing in light of the ‘terrible events’ of the Grenfell fire and ‘the utter disaster it made of many peoples’ lives’. ‘Housing safety is at the core of what housing lawyers do,’ he said. ‘Housing is the foundation of everything, of the stability in people’s lives – education, their mental and physical health, employment. If you haven’t got a safe home, everything is at risk.’
LALY18 WINNERS IN FULL
- Outstanding achievement (sponsored by Matrix Chambers): Lord Justice Andrew McFarlane
- Public law (sponsored by Irwin Mitchell): Harriet Wistrich, Birnberg Peirce
- Housing law (sponsored by Garden Court Chambers): Giles Peaker, Anthony Gold Solicitors
- Criminal defence (sponsored by DG Legal): Aika Stephenson, Just for Kids Law
- Access to justice through IT (sponsored by The Legal Education Foundation): CaseRatio, Tuckers Solicitors
- Legal aid firm/Not-for-profit agency (sponsored by The Law Society): Ealing Law Centre
- Legal aid practice management (sponsored by Accesspoint): Adam Makepeace, Tuckers Solicitors
- Social and welfare law (sponsored by Tikit): Sophie Freeman, Coram Children’s Legal Centre
- Family legal aid – including mediation (sponsored by Resolution): Tony McGovern, Creighton & Partners
- Legal aid barrister (sponsored by The Bar Council): Martha Cover, Coram Chambers
- Children’s rights (sponsored by Anthony Gold Solicitors): Dan Rosenberg, Simpson Millar
- Legal aid newcomer (sponsored by Friends of LALY18): Lewis Kett, Duncan Lewis
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