As some of you will already know Garden Court North won the “Barristers’ Chambers of the Year” award at the Manchester Legal Award ceremony this week. It may only be a regional award rather than a national one but I thought it was great that the efforts and hard work of a bunch of legal aid lawyers received this recognition. There was insufficient time to allow the winners to make speeches although we were interviewed by the Manchester Evening News. Being a novice at such occasions and not knowing the format I had in fact prepared a speech and since there was no opportunity to deliver it on the night I thought I would post it here:-
Garden Court North is an avowedly legal aid set and proud to be so. We are to legal services what the NHS is to health services and just as people go to a doctor if they need healthcare without wondering if their credit card is fully charged, we think you should be able to go to see a lawyer because you need help with a legal problem without worrying about the cost.
We serve clients from many different walks of life but it is true to say that significant numbers of our lay clients are people of whom it can be said that life has not been kind. Many have suffered discrimination or persecution, they suffer from poverty and poor health, including in some cases poor mental health.
That is why you will find barristers from GCN involved in cases as diverse as the current challenge to the “bedroom tax”, challenges to Home Office decisions refusing asylum claims and representing some of the families at the Hillsborough Inquests. But in addition to such cases, every day our members are fighting to uphold and enforce the rights of clients in both civil and criminal courts and tribunals across the country. Most of these cases and the other work we do are funded through the legal aid scheme.
When I started my own career almost 40 years ago we were sometimes ridiculed and called “the radical Bar”. I didn’t think we were radical at all. All we were doing was helping ordinary people to take advantage of the availability of legal aid to enforce their legal rights. The only “radical” thing about it was the notion that you didn’t have to be well heeled in order to be able to enforce your rights.
In recent years however, whole areas of law have been taken out of scope for legal aid. Not just in family cases but in other areas of social welfare law, prison law and immigration people in desperate need are now denied legal help. Access to justice, whether you can pay or not, which is surely a hallmark of any civilised society, has been completely destroyed for many poor and middle income earners.
Those cuts have hit our clients hard but it also means that it hasn’t been easy being legal aid lawyers in recent years. Successive governments have seen legal aid as an easy target for cuts which threatens the current diversity of the Bar and makes it harder to recruit the brightest young lawyers to our ranks. They have also added significantly to the administrative burden placed on our clerking team.
As I said when interviewed by a panel of judges, what is the point of having legal rights if you can’t enforce them? But how do you do that without a lawyer expert in that field? And how can you get a lawyer to take your case unless there is in place a system for ensuring that lawyer gets paid for their work?
That is why legal aid solicitors and barristers are not a luxury item only to be tolerated in times of plenty. They are an essential part of a properly functioning legal services sector.
We are very pleased that our contribution as legal aid lawyers providing a vital service to our clients has been recognised through this award. I am very happy to accept it on behalf of my hard-working and very committed colleagues in chambers and our utterly dedicated clerking team.