The second cohort of nine Justice First Fellows graduated from the scheme earlier this month, after completing their legal training and qualifying as solicitors.
The fellowship scheme was launched in 2014 by the grant-giving charity The Legal Education Foundation in response to the fall in numbers of training places available in the legal aid sector.
The fellows graduation was marked by a celebration dinner held at the Law Society, where they were presented with their Justice First Fellowship certificates by TLEF board chairman Guy Beringer.
Guy, who is a former City lawyer, spoke of his pride at being associated with the JFF scheme. Among its aims are to ensure social welfare lawyers are recognised as a vital and respected part of the legal profession, he said. He added that the foundation hopes to keep in touch with all graduating fellows over time and that, as the numbers grow, they will evolve into a supportive and influential network.
TLEF chief executive Matthew Smerdon paid tribute to each of the fellow’s achievements during their training. These included Denisa Gannon who is the first woman of Roma heritage to qualify as a solicitor in this country. Gannon, who came to the UK from the Czech Republic to escape discrimination, now works at Coventry Law Centre, acting for victims of domestic violence.
Also, Sophie Earnshaw who during her time at Child Poverty Action Group had taken part in the successful Supreme Court challenge over the ‘bedroom tax’. Now at North Kensington Law Centre, Earnshaw is part of its dedicated Grenfell Response Team, providing advice and representation to former residents of the tower.
Matthew described how the work of the fellows really can transform lives. He told the story of a client of Amarjeet Mehmi, a fellow at the housing charity Shelter. Victor had come to the UK age 15, after fleeing Somalia where he had been forced to become a soldier. He slept on park benches for two years, before finally being picked up by a charity, and referred to Mehmi. Despite his obvious vulnerability, the local authority refused to house him and Mehmi had to battle for nine months before they finally recognised they owed him a duty to house him. Victor is now working in M&S and training to become an accountant.
The guest speaker for the evening was Kaweh Beheshtizadeh, a former refugee who won the 2018 Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year award for immigration and asylum law. Beheshtizadeh (main picture) said he was inspired to hear the Fellows’ stories. ‘What you are doing is phenomenal. I am so proud to be among you and, like you, to be ensuring justice is still done in this country by representing vulnerable people.’
He arrived in the UK in 2004. He did a law degree at London Met university, despite having limited English and having to work four nights a week as a hotel receptionist. ‘But I had big dreams.’ For the first two years of his degree, he recorded his lectures so he could listen to them again later ‘with a dictionary next to me’. He did well at Bar school, but no chambers would accept him. So he decided to become a solicitor instead, and now works at Barnes Harrild & Dyer, a specialist immigration firm in Croydon.
Despite ‘brutal’ legal aid cuts, he still loves his job. ‘No words can describe the feeling when you when you assist an asylum seeker to achieve refugee status. No words can describe the feeling when a refugee is reunited with their family. No words can describe when you are helping a mother, a father, not to be separated from their children.’
He acted for one couple who had been through a 10-year battle to be recognised as refugees before Beheshtizadeh took on the case and won. Afterwards, they came to pick up their documents. The wife was now pregnant; they wanted to thank him by naming their child Kaweh. While he doubted the wisdom of this decision, ‘the feeling was phenomenal,’ he said.
Fiona Bawdon is a freelance legal affairs journalist and head of communications at The Legal Education Foundation.
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