Being a legal aid lawyer took ‘courage, and brains and most definitely a heart’, said veteran housing lawyer Sue James last night on accepting the award for outstanding achievement at last night’s Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards. You can read Catherine Baksi’s review on the 15th LALYs on LegalVoice here.
James, a housing solicitor at Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre as well as a Legal Voice columnist, has spent most of her 28 year legal career working in the law centres movement. ‘I wanted to be a solicitor in a law centre. Law centres just do things differently,’ James told a packed audience. ‘I love that we get to go from the food bank to the Supreme Court.’
Compere Anna Jones, from Sky News, paid tribute to one ‘one of the few lawyers alive’ to have worked at a law centre while setting up a new law centre. When Ealing lost its main social welfare law provider four years ago, James resolved to establish a new law centre. ‘All this, when the LASPO cuts were just starting to bite – and many law centres were going the other way and closing their doors,’ said Jones.
Previous winners of the outstanding achievement award include the legal team for the Hillsborough families, the Public Law Project and Baroness Doreen Lawrence, mother of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, who handed out the awards.
Sue James was also praised for her writing in LegalVoice. ‘By telling her clients’ stories – the woman who took her one lightbulb from room to room; the mother penalised under the bedroom tax after her daughter died, leaving her with a ‘spare room’ – our winner has done more than many professional campaigners to spread the true story of legal aid to the unconverted or unbothered,’ Jones said.
The lawyer was commended for her groundbreaking cases, including acting for a woman sacked after becoming pregnant in a case that went to the European Court of Justice (Webb v EMO Air Cargo (UK) Ltd 1994). She also represented 17-year-old Akilah Robinson who had been kicked out of her home in 2005. Her local authority, Hammersmith & Fulham, was trying to delay dealing with the case until Robinson turned 18 years when she would no longer have the right to be re-housed. The case went to the Court of Appeal and secured protections for young homeless people. Anna Jones said that the case had ‘transformed Akilah’s life’.
Writing for the Guardian earlier in the year, James called her clients ‘the real Daniel Blakes’. ‘They sit on the outside of everyday, acceptable society. They are invisible and unheard. I try to give them a voice.’
‘The workhouse has been replaced by the foodbank’
Accepting the award last night, Sue James explained her motivation for telling her clients’ stories. ‘Austerity justice just isn’t working that’s why I started to write. I want other people, not just lawyers to see what we see. Stories are powerful,’ she said. ‘They can move people. Dickens knew that. He didn’t write pamphlets with facts, he wrote about the people and the poverty. His stories are still as relevant today. It’s just that the workhouse has been replaced with the foodbank.’
James was the first person from her school to go to university. ‘We had a great swimming pool, at my school, but very little hope or expectation,’ she said. Her interest in a legal career was piqued by her experience at Warwick University. ‘We had strikes and demonstrations outside the classroom but inside I learnt that law could be used as a tool to make change,’ she said.
That was followed by a masters’ degree in social welfare law at Leicester University while she undertook a training contract at a Nottingham firm which was busy representing striking miners. The firm wanted her to pursue a career as a criminal lawyer. ‘But I had been inspired by the radical lawyers of the 70s and wanted to be a solicitor in a law centre,’ she said.
She has been at Hammersmith now for 12 years which she described as ‘a great community’ but acknowledged it had been ‘a struggle’. ‘We had eight years with no funding during the Conservative administration, and the law centre shrunk from 11 lawyers to five.’
‘I know from my many years representing tenants, that good housing changes people’s lives. Decent, safe, affordable housing should be a basic right. I hope that recent events will bring some change. We can only hope. And when it goes wrong people need access to legal aid. But that’s in crisis too, as we know. Austerity justice just isn’t working.’
She finished by calling on fellow lawyers to ‘be radical again – like the lawyers in the 70’s’. ‘Let’s inspire the next generation of legal aid lawyers,’ she said.
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