The Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards is an annual highlight of my calendar so I was genuinely thrilled to hear that not even a global pandemic could stop this year's ceremony from taking place, albeit remotely.
The awards are an inspiring watch, hearing the incredible work that all the nominees have done over the past 12 months. This year, for me, one particular anecdote stood out. I wasn't quite sure if my computer was playing up as I watched the ceremony from the comfort of my dining room office, but I thought I heard Nicola Burgess, legal director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, which won Legal Aid Team of the Year, say they had bought formula for one of their clients’ babies.
I recently got the chance to speak to some of the team and had to ask. I did, indeed, hear right. The client, a victim of domestic abuse, was one of the first cases that Ellen Fotheringham took on at the start of her training contract with JCWI. When Covid-19 struck, Fotheringham says her client's baby became seriously unwell. The mother was living in unclean, crowded conditions, was struggling to isolate but also struggling to leave the house. When she was able to go out, she struggled to get the items she needed due to panicked shoppers emptying the shelves. The JCWI team searched the internet and managed to find baby formula to be delivered to the mother the next day.
Nicola tells me another incredible story about a longstanding client. 'We received a call at about 3pm from a benefits adviser. [The client] was under the impression that she applied and instructed us to extend limited leave to remain. He was concerned and wanted to double check.' The client had mental health issues. 'She had visited our office but we had boarded up the windows. We weren't there but in her mind she had instructed us,' Nicola says.
The team had less than two hours to submit an application to the Home Office. 'If we had not, she would have become an overstayer. She would have lost access to her benefits, housing, access to the NHS which she really needed.' The team quickly took instructions, read the documents and submitted an application. It turns out the client, whose life could have quickly turned upside down had the team not acted quickly, has a strong case for definite leave to remain.
Recent Home Office tweets about 'activist lawyers' paint lawyers as the villain. I don't know how many villains would go out of their way to buy formula for their client's baby during a pandemic. Do you?