It was a real honour to share a platform with Lady Hale at the Legal Action Group Conference last week. We were on a panel discussing achievements, landmarks and omissions over the last 5 years in the legal aid world.
Lady Hale opened with the keynote speech which she began by apologising that it has taken the Supreme Court so long to get the Benefit Cap judgement out, adding “better late than never ” before focusing on family law. She described a fictional case of a young mum fleeing violence with her children in a North Yorkshire village, with no access to the internet, no legal aid solicitors in the immediate area, local courts having closed. She painted a grim picture and stated that cuts to legal aid had hit family law the hardest.
Stephen Knaffler QC chaired the first session and he had his work cut out keeping us to time. Because the bill was packed with really great speakers, we each had only 8 minutes to make our pitch. I had to follow Jawaid Luqmani who is so funny, and a real tough act to follow – he apologised to me afterwards!
The second panel had one of the lawyers I look up to most: Marcia Willis Stewart, speaking about the Hillsborough Enquiry which rightly earned her Honorary Silk. She was eloquent as ever.
The final panel of the day was chaired by the wonderful Angela Patrick from Doughty street chambers. 6 lawyers had 3 minutes each to make their pitch for the most important legal aid case ever. Marc Willers QC, my colleague from NoMad Law spoke about the case of Porter no 1 which transformed the law for Roma Travellers and Gypsies in terms of land rights. I was sure I was going to vote for that one until I heard Diane Aston, last to speak. She didn’t talk about a landmark case, she talked about a fairly low key ordinary county court case where the legal intervention was at its most powerful in terms of outcome getting a young person off the streets, into accommodation and University, which tugged at everyone’s heart. Her case won overwhelmingly, not by being a big name with big name lawyers acting in it (although Diane Austin is, in fact, a big name) but because it demonstrated so powerfully the impact of publicly funded access to justice can transform a life for the better.
The legacy of 70 years of legal aid is something to be really proud of, but we all have to continue to lobby and fight to improve legal aid post the LASPO cuts to ensure that the legacy continues.
Blog by Cris McCurley, Partner and Family Law Solicitor