Legal aid lawyers are under pressure. They have very little time, diminishing earnings and, in what little spare time they do have, they are campaigning for their very survival.

So Legal Aid Barrister of the Year, Joanne Cecil could be forgiven for being short on enthusiasm for her new title. The reality is far from that.

Cecil is clearly delighted at the result of the ceremony organised by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group in July this year. ‘It’s a fantastic award to receive because it’s one that’s judged very much by your peers,’ she tells me as soon as we meet. ‘It’s such a lovely world to be part of, the Legal Aid world.’

Cecil’s campaigning to make sure that world survives – including helping with a crowdfunding effort to send a copy of The Secret Barrister’s book to every MP – was one of the reasons for her public recognition.

So what state is the publicly funded Bar in now? ‘Ultimately the financial pressures are all fairly intense,’ says Cecil, ‘but combine that with the work life balance that exists – or doesn’t exist, I should say – at most parts of the publicly funded Bar, because it’s the whole system collapsing around us and, unfortunately, you end up picking up a lot of the pieces all of the time and it’s just not a sustainable way of living.’

The cause of the current problems has been the ‘incredibly hostile attitude’ from the Ministry of Justice over several years, according to Cecil. She does now see some signs of that slowly changing but says more needs to be done to stop an increasing number of barristers giving up on legal aid work or leaving the profession altogether, a trend particularly stark among women at the Bar.

It’s quite clear Cecil is not seeking out fortune. Her day job that pays the bills – representing clients at trial and on appeal – now takes up only around 50% of her working life.

The rest of her time is spent advising the Ministry of Justice on reforms to youth courts; negotiating with the government over barristers’ fees; contributing to the Bar Human Rights Committee as a member of the Executive; assisting the UK and EU to intervene in US death penalty cases; to name a few of her interests. She has also recently been appointed a Recorder in the Family Court, so her diary shows no signs of emptying anytime soon.

Cecil hails from the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire and she still has a noticeable, if mild, West Country accent. Her family and her partner’s family are still based in the county. It was here, during her childhood, that she developed the values which run through her working life today.

‘I’ve always had a keen sense of justice and injustice and I’ve always been relatively idealistic and fairly positive in my general demeanour in life,’ Cecil tells me. ‘So it came to me in terms of what I wanted to do going forwards at a quite a young age, I suppose, in the sense that it was at school.’

Never one to lounge, she did keep her options somewhat open by taking art A Level and a number of National Vocational Qualifications alongside the more traditional subjects for aspiring lawyers. ‘I suppose my career options were between going into something like fashion, going into the law or going into some level of international diplomacy and conflict situations.’

No one in Cecil’s family before her generation had been to university. She was brought up to believe ‘the world is your oyster and you can do whatever you choose to do’, an attitude she credits with much of her success. ‘But because of that there was no reality injected into it,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t really aware of any potential barriers that might be in place and at that stage. I didn’t even really know the importance of universities in terms of which university is a good university to go to; how that would potentially follow you through your career. All of those aspects which now, looking back, seems to be incredibly naive.’

Despite this she made it to the Bar Vocational Course (the predecessor to the Bar Professional Training Course) which she describes as ‘appalling’. It put her off the idea of being a barrister so much that she left the country, ending up in the USA at a Washington-based civil rights organisation.

This gave Cecil a first taste of campaigning to reform the law when she helped spearhead the fight against the use of the death penalty for under-18s and worked on legal issues around the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. She rose through the organisation quickly while she was still in her early 20s.

‘I think having an English accent opened many, many more doors and most people didn’t quite realise just how young [I was] at that point and I ended up in a position where we were essentially advising the European Union and other states on which cases to intervene in at the [US] Supreme Court.’

This work culminated in the case of Roper v Simmons which abolished the death penalty for those who were juveniles at the time they committed an offence. Cecil played a crucial role, drafting a legal submission – known as an amicus curiae – on behalf of the EU, utilising international law arguments in America’s highest court at a time when this was still seen as ‘alien’.

The idea of using litigation in a strategic way to bring about a change in the law was new to many British lawyers. When Cecil returned to the UK in 2005 she started to develop a specialism in criminal justice and particularly cases involving juveniles, using the skills she learnt on the other side of the Atlantic.

In 2015 she was instructed by the charity Just for Kids Law to intervene in the case of R v Jogee in the Supreme Court. This landmark case reset the law on joint enterprise – the principle that you can be guilty of a crime committed by another person – with Cecil making the case that children and young people can’t be expected to foresee consequences in the same way as adults.

More recently, she has been involved in an appeal challenging the imposition of the mandatory life sentence for those under 18. They lost in the English courts but the case is now before the European Court of Human Rights.

‘I do believe that, on this particular issue, the law is on our side in that respect and standards are evolving internationally,’ Cecil says, demonstrating some of the optimism she always seems to maintain.

That positivity also extends to encouraging a new generation to come to the publicly funded Bar, despite its current problems.

‘It is still a job that is that is meaningful and it’s also just a vitally important role that you’re playing,’ she says insisting, ‘it’s a job that I love doing.’

As we get up to leave, Cecil checks her phone and finds four urgent messages from her clerks. She heads off to get back to the job she loves, one that never seems to stop. 

Adam Smith-Roberts worked in journalism at the BBC and ITV News for eight years, focusing on Westminster politics. After a year at legal human rights charity Reprieve, he is now a pupil at a London chambers.