Housing law specialist and winner of Legal Aid Practitioners Group gong remains positive in face of cuts
Barrister Connor Johnston may well be young, but he appears already to be part of a dying breed of lawyer — for nearly all of his work is legally aided.
Not many lawyers these days can — or would want — to say that. But Johnston, who several days ago picked up the newcomer gong at the annual Legal Action Group legal aid lawyers awards, is confident that his practice will survive the cuts and provided the government’s hatchet isn’t wielded again, he will stay in the profession beyond his current newbie status.
Almost all — literally some 99% — of my work since starting practice is legally aided,” the housing law specialist tells Legal Cheek. “My biggest concern is the cuts imposed on the solicitors, Citizens Advice Bureaux and law centres that instruct me.
Connor did a pupillage at Garden Court Chambers in London’s Lincoln’s Inn four years ago and stayed on as a tenant. And if anyone should be able to work out the financial viability of a practice area, it is Johnston, who read maths at Birmingham University.
After graduating in 2004, Johnston was at a bit of a loss regarding his next move. “I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do and had a series of dull jobs,” he recalls.
But then he plumped for the law conversion course at Sheffield University before going on to the old Bar Vocational Course at the Bloomsbury branch of the then College of Law.
In his BVC year, Johnston won the 2010 Inner Temple Lawson moot, as well as an Exhibition and Duke of Edinburgh Scholarship from Inner Temple.
But it was earlier — when at Sheffield University — that Johnston became convinced that a career in public law was preferable to signing up with the nearest accountancy firm. He did stints at a local refugee advice centre as well as taking a paralegal role with prison reform body, the Howard League.
With that organisation — where he was thrown in at the deep end, working with children serving life sentences — Johnston combined prison law, criminal appeals and community care.
In addition to becoming impassioned early about public law, Johnston also took up an early role campaigning for protection of state funded legal advice. Even before bagging pupillage, he joined the Young Legal Aid Lawyers, a national group of some 1,700 members. And from 2011 until earlier this year, Johnston was that body’s co-chairman.
I became interested in housing law issues while working for the Howard League,” relates the junior barrister. “Housing issues are a real problem for prisoners when they are released. They can find it difficult and intimidating to challenge and take on local authorities. Likewise, trying to keep vulnerable people in their homes is important work — acting for those that have been evicted and who need to challenge local authority decisions.
While Johnston remains relatively confident that he will be able to continue his housing legal aid practice for the near future, he acknowledges that financial security is always an issue for state-funded lawyers.
I’ve never seen the law as a being a route to making a fortune — I’m not in the legal profession to make a lot of money. And while my practice should be all right provided there are no more cuts, I have real concerns for the future of my colleagues at the criminal bar.
Garden Court Chambers barrister named as young legal aid lawyer of the year [Legal Cheek]