Winning the Legal Aid Practitioners Group newcomer award, Birnberg Peirce solicitor describes state of system as a “disaster”.
“This is the worst time ever to try to be a legal aid lawyer.”
That blunt assessment comes from the winner of this year’s “newcomer” prize at the annual Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards, which were presented last week by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group.
The 30-year-old lawyer is Camilla Graham-Wood, a solicitor specialising in actions against the police at renowned London law firm Birnberg Peirce & Partners.
Her harsh assessment of the prospects for aspiring legal aid lawyers is formed against a backdrop of swinging government cuts to both eligibility and remuneration rates. Specialist legal aid firms are going to the wall around the country as both the civil and criminal budgets have been in the Ministry of Justice’s crosshairs.
Whitehall’s existing and proposed cuts have triggered lawyer street protests and even a vote of no confidence in the leadership of the Law Society for what many perceive to be a woefully inadequate and feeble campaign of opposition against Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s efforts.
According to Graham-Wood:
“The government’s cuts are a disaster, a disaster that is already being felt in the family courts and by victims of domestic violence. The courts are in chaos. The cuts are a false economy and will not save money, if anything there will be huge knock on costs.”
Graham-Wood read politics at Bristol University, before doing the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) at BPP and the Legal Practice Course (LPC) at the then College (now University) of Law.
During that study, she also threw into the mix a year working with two organisations, the Housing Rights Task Force and Legal Aid of Cambodia. And once she had finished the LPC, Graham-Wood volunteered at the Law Society’s human rights department, helping to organise the first mission to Colombia by UK lawyers in support of persecuted local practitioners. Graham-Wood also did a three-month scholarship working on death row cases at the human rights centre in Trinidad.
She started at Birnberg Peirce as a legal secretary before taking a training contract predominantly in the immigration and asylum and civil actions departments. Graham-Wood qualified in 2012 and now focuses mostly on actions against the police, unlawful detention, trafficking and asylum.
“I love the areas of law in which I practise, my clients are inspiring. Despite the injustices they have suffered they fight for their rights and I help them do that through using the law,” she says
Graham-Wood maintains the wider public misunderstands the purpose and need for an adequately-funded legal aid system:
“The lawyers are not well paid, and we do this work because we believe that people should be able to stand up to the state when the government acts unlawfully, that they should be able to access justice whether they live in a castle or are homeless,” she explains.
For Graham-Wood, there is no other field of law that would intrigue and motivate her as much as her current work.
“If legal aid goes then I will find another job which I probably won’t feel as passionate about. However, the real impact will be on the rule of law. The state and other powerful individuals will be more able to trample over people’s rights without fear of the law bearing upon them to hold them to account,” she suggests.
Her advice to those keen to follow the legal aid path in trying times?
“Don’t only look at firms that just do legal aid. Talk to firms that have a good split of work, including privately-funded. And at interviews, young lawyers should not be reluctant to ask the firms about their strategy for survival.”
On a practical level, Graham-Wood recommends doing the LPC on a part-time basis, and also considering the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives route to qualification.
“Both of those options can protect you a bit more against the financial burden of qualifying,” she says.
Also shortlisted for this year’s newcomer legal aid award were: Clair Hilder from fellow London law firm Hodge Jones & Allen, Lucy Mair from Manchester-based barristers’ chambers Garden Court North and Martha Spurrier form London chambers Doughty Street.
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