Advocacy for all: Alison Pickup

The Public Law Project’s Legal Director is still very much an advocate speaking up for others – at a time when the need for its work has intensified. Alison Pickup talks to Charlotte Pope-Williams about not leaving the Bar, pursuit of the perfect mix and the PLP’s reach during the pandemic

I am conducting my interview with Alison remotely via MS Teams which would be of little to no relevance but for the fact that had we met in person I would have brought some Guinness cake (Nigella Lawson’s recipe) which I have found conducive to breaking the ice. However, no such inducement is required since Alison is affable and engaging from start to finish.

First, a little about Alison; her glowing CV speaks for itself but a few highlights that serve to contextualise our discussion are worthy of note:

  • In her capacity as Legal Director at the Public Law Project (PLP), Alison won the Outstanding Employed Barrister in an NGO award at the Bar Council’s 2020 Employed Bar Awards.
  • Alison tells me that she came to the Bar to be an ‘advocate and a voice to speak up for people who were less able to speak for themselves’ after falling into immigration case work after university. It strikes me that she has embodied this throughout her practice as both a self-employed and employed practitioner. Before joining PLP in 2016 Alison had a flourishing practice in public law specialising in immigration, asylum and migrants’ rights at Doughty Street Chambers. She continues to build on this practice at PLP.
  • Alison was junior counsel in the cases of R (Public Law Project) v Lord Chancellor [2014] EWHC 2365 (Admin) and [2015] EWCA Civ 1193 [2016] UKSC 39 where legal aid cuts were challenged and culminated in part, in a successful challenge before the Supreme Court to the proposed ‘residence test’ for legal aid. The proposed test would have resulted in legal aid being withheld from people that parliament considered were not physically present in the UK or did not have (or could not prove) more than 12 months’ lawful residence in the UK. This would have meant that legal aid would have been withheld from a greater proportion of people who were not British, or did not have British origins, compared with people who were British or had British origins. Alison understandably described this Supreme Court victory as one of her proudest moments to date.

I am keen to understand Alison’s views about being an employed barrister and a little about her day-to-day working life. Alison notes that in relation to her move from the self-employed to the employed Bar some fellow practitioners remarked that ‘it [was] such a shame that you are leaving the Bar’. I observe that similar phrases or comments are oft heard by employed barristers. However, Alison remains a barrister. She still gives advice and undertakes advocacy etc. As regards one of the distinguishing features between her self-employed and employed practice, Alison notes that her job means that she continues to do those parts of a barrister’s role that she loves but that she now does this as part of a team, all of whom are driving towards the same goal.

We spoke a little more about Alison’s move from the self-employed Bar to the employed Bar. While she loved her work at Doughty Street, she found herself working ‘insanely long hours and long days’. We both observe that almost four years ago when Alison moved to PLP, the profession was not speaking about wellbeing as much as it is now. Ironically at the time of interviewing Alison I have also been working insanely long hours and days. We both note that there are peaks and troughs irrespective of how one practises. Alison’s current role at PLP came up at a juncture when she was already considering taking a break to reset from a wellbeing perspective. Alison describes her role as the ‘perfect mix of barristering, management, providing training and doing some policy work’. While Alison did all these things (except management) as a self-employed practitioner the ability to be employed at PLP to do this work very much appealed and the rest, as they say, is history.

A good deal of my conversation with Alison centres on wellbeing. Alison noted that one of the positive features of the employed Bar is having a manager/(s) who is expressly responsible for your wellbeing with a range of tools at their disposal to support you. As part of maintaining her wellbeing before the lockdown, Alison’s day would have normally commenced by cycling to work. Similarly to myself, Alison’s pre-lockdown interests also included travel and consuming delicious foodstuffs with friends. She now prioritises taking at least 30 minutes per day to walk, run or cycle during which time she often listens to podcasts such as Brene Brown’s ‘Dare to Lead’ (which since our conversation has now formed part of my playlist during cardio!). In lieu of eating out with friends Alison has taken to cooking at home using recipe books. Also, lest anyone were to say that barristers were not creative, Alison also took up knitting and learned how to draw during the first lockdown. She says that she is not very good at either (I still hold out hope that she may be a contestant on a Bake Off-type programme or Great British Sewing Bee type competition in the future).

Currently Alison’s work is approximately a 70:30 split between managerial work and the more traditional work of a barrister. A lot of Alison’s work involves directing how PLP’s resources should be deployed, what work needs to be done and leading her team. As for what is occupying Alison’s time during these unprecedented times (for want of a better adjective); she observes that as opposed to there being a change in the work currently undertaken by PLP there has instead been an ‘intensification of its work as a result of the pandemic eg around benefit sanctions. (Benefit sanctions were temporarily suspended but they have been reinstituted as at July 2020 with a dramatic rise in people claiming Universal Credit.) Further, Alison’s team has been undertaking work relating to the government’s hostile environment policy, the move to online justice as part of Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service’s Reform Programme, in particular the court transformation programme, as well as a great deal of work on the government’s Independent Review of Administrative Law.

I also chat to Alison about her hopes for the future of the Bar and what she would like to stay the same. Alison considers that she would like to see the Bar becoming ever more equal and diverse at each and every level, albeit noting that there had been improvements in gender diversity at the Bar. However, that isn’t to say that Alison considers that a wholesale change to the profession is required. On the contrary, she considers that there are certain constants at the Bar that should remain. In particular, that we should all continue to be fearless, not being afraid to stand up to power, independent and committed to the training of our peers in the profession. A sentiment which seems to be the perfect way to bring the discussion to a close. 

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Charlotte Pope-Williams

Charlotte Pope-Williams works as an employed barrister financial services dispute resolution specialist at Pinsent Masons LLP where her focus is large scale complex multi-jurisdictional commercial litigation and investigations.