Assistant director of law, Islington Council, London
I’ve always believed in local authorities playing a proactive role to help people achieve social justice. Being a lawyer for the council means that I can make sure this is done in a lawful manner.
Before becoming a lawyer, I was one of the last students of Dr FR Leavis at the University of York, while studying English literature. That taught me the importance of precision and accuracy when composing any kind of document.
I had to run a vast number of files in a Soho firm for a strange mix of clients, from whom I took instructions in Bar Italia or Maison Bertaux. This was far better training for a legal career than anything I learned at law school.
One of the most challenging aspects of being a local authority lawyer is the great variety of the work and having to be expert and up-to-date in so many different fields.
My first local authority case was Brook v Haringey, which was a leading authority on redundancy selection for many years until it was overruled by the Court of Appeal. I recall the late Jeremy McMullen, who appeared for the losing claimants, saying that he looked forward to opposing me in the European court if and when the case reached that stage – it never did – as he imagined that solicitors would be able to appear by the time that happened.
The best moment was when we managed to get the government to back down over the abolition of funding for the local welfare fund. This had been devolved to councils, who then had the funding suddenly withdrawn. Judicial review proceedings swiftly changed the government’s mind, before we got into court, and the fund was restored – albeit in part.
I gave legal advice which enabled the authority to pioneer the provision of free school meals for primary school children. This is now a government requirement for infants, but at the time was thought to be unlawful by many educationalists.
A recent triumph was compelling TfL to withdraw its decision to close Caledonian Road tube station for eight months from March while it fixes the lifts. I’m pleased TfL now acknowledges that temporary closure requires an equality analysis and in particular that the needs of disabled people must be taken into account. I am relieved that I was in the office after 5pm on new year’s eve to receive the dismissive reply to the pre-action protocol letter. I could make sure proceedings were issued in time on 7 January 2016, following much burning of the midnight oil over Christmas and new year.
Unfortunately, we lost our attempt to prevent the cuts to the London Fire Brigade (it was a close-run thing). But running the judicial review on behalf of eight authorities was a real exercise in partnership working and brought home to the general public the potential consequences of the savings.