Extraordinary Working Lives: John Nicholson

Free-access-to-justice campaigner John Nicholson recounts a day in the life as a legal aid lawyer operating in the hostile environment

Waking in the early hours. Anxious as often about the appeal today. A gay man from an African country which still criminalises gay sex – should be straightforward for this country to honour its international humanitarian obligations and grant refugee status to the asylum claimant, but this is the UK of the Daily May, and a culture of disbelief on the part of her Home Office. Why on earth would any government want to promote a ‘hostile environment’? Surely world peace and clean air and water would be better goals. The trouble is for the appellant today that it will all depend on the judge... Have we got the arguments and is the witness evidence enough to overcome all possible judicial doubts?

On the way in to the tribunal, a phone call from the law centre. A possible funding body would like a meeting with us, can we give dates? OK, let’s see. They would also like the usual – accounts, business plans, policies. There will be work involved and no guaranteed outcome. A few of us – barristers from Kenworthy’s, community organisations such as the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU), campaigners for access to justice and trade unionists – got together to set up the Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC) when the previous legal aid overseer (the then Legal Services Commission, LSC) finally managed to shut down South Manchester Law Centre, the last remaining law centre in Manchester itself. (The county of Greater Manchester once had ninelaw centres; by the end of 2014 just two were struggling to keep going.) We started with no money, no services, no premises, but a commitment to restore legal aid and generate a new cohort of social welfare lawyers. So we just did it. We have had tremendous support from three brave national charities, and opened our doors to the public in Moss Side in 2016.

Since then our volunteer advisers have now reclaimed over £1m for claimants in Greater Manchester whose benefit entitlements were wrongly refused by the Department for Work and Pensions – the environment is as hostile for claimants as for migrants. And we’ve done all this without a penny in legal aid funding, so far. But we are still looking for longer term support from the local health and local government authorities. Financial sustainability is essential. The remaining already heavily reduced legal aid won’t mean anything if there aren’t organisations willing or able to take on legal aid contracts in the first place.

We have also tried to get lawyers to give a small percentage of their own income (donations welcome: see www.gmlaw.org.uk).

Just spotted a message in the middle of the usual flurry of early morning emails. Our immigration team’s ever helpful clerk. She is asking if I will (again) settle for a heavily reduced fee. OK. We’ll give in. It’s in the interests of getting something rather than further delay arguing with the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) or costs assessors – and wasting more of solicitors’ valuable time. Then she explains. This was a judicial review which I won nine years ago. It has taken the combination of LSC/LAA/solicitors/costs court all this time to ‘close’ the file and arrive at the outcome. Bleak House? Yes, it seems I was already paid two thirds ‘on account’ by the then LSC some seven years ago and so now if I agree the settlement, I will have to pay the LAA back £400.

This time, let’s fight it. Giving in and suffering a reduced fee is one thing. Having to write a cheque to the LAA… No idea what fighting it means, but let’s do it. She will find out for me.*

Into the tribunal and there’s a learned friend with news about the Windrush compensation scheme. It’s another consultation, not compensation. We have tried to do a lot on this – people have come into the GMLC (Moss Side is home to the main West Indian community), we have offered information and taken up cases through the GMIAU, we have publicised and campaigned. It is a scandal, but it is also the tip of the iceberg of Home Office hostility; this time they have been found out.

I’ve got a ‘mini pupil’ shadowing me today. Also, not surprisingly, a young aspiring lawyer who is volunteering at the law centre. We started a scheme with Manchester Metropolitan University two years ago and now have been able to extend this to the University of Manchester as well. They select appropriate law students who come and represent law centre claimants at their appeal hearings – with a high success rate for the latter, and good experience of advocacy for the former. Several of these students have gained pupillages on the basis of this experience. Today’s ‘shadow’ isn’t from the traditional lawyer background, he’s a local Moss Side plumber by trade who is retraining – and comes with deserved praise from the supervisor. We briefly discuss today’s appeal. He can’t see how anyone could dismiss it. He’s already shocked at the treatment of people going through this tribunal – they’ve fled persecution and yet they’re being treated worse than criminals. Welcome to our world…

"Today’s ‘shadow’ isn’t from the traditional lawyer background, he’s a local Moss Side plumber by trade who is retraining – and comes with deserved praise from the supervisor"

I introduce him to another learned friend from Kenworthy’s. We went to Athens last year to volunteer with Refugee Legal Support, organised by barristers here for some very beleaguered local advisers in Greece who are still receiving thousands of desperate people who have undertaken dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean. A country already afflicted with economic and environmental problems of its own. They’re still looking for volunteers.

Into the hearing with the appellant and witnesses. Usual daft questions from the Home Office. They have got very good policy, on assessing credibility in sexuality cases. Thanks to more than a little outside help – but the policy is good, the trouble is they don’t use it. But things are going OK. Until the judge steps in. It is supposed to be an adversarial jurisdiction but it doesn’t always work that way. The judge interrupts the witness, who is convinced (and convincing) from personal experience that the appellant is gay. It’s difficult, the judge is saying, to tell if this is so: ‘The Tribunal is plagued by people pretending to be gay.’

Out of the hearing and I de-brief the appellant and all the supporters who have given their time to come here today and show their belief and commitment, in order to contributeto our justice system. At least they had all turned their phones off when they went into the court (doesn’t always work so well). Turning mine back on and... there’s another email. Looks like another journalist wanting (as always) an instant answer – they want us to jump and give them our full attention, today, but where were they last week, and tomorrow they will be gone again. Will need to try to explain that these things take time, you cannot just get a vulnerable client to come in and ‘do TV’ for them. Of course we want the publicity for what people are experiencing, but these issues are sensitive. Preparing the spiel in my head.

No, I was wrong. It’s Counsel magazine asking about a day in the life of a legal aid immigration lawyer. Thanks. And for all your support. It’s much appreciated!

John Nicholson is a barrister at Kenworthy’s Chambers and Chair of the Greater Manchester Law Centre: see www.gmlaw.org.uk

* Postscript: John and his clerk did succeed in their challenge to the costs assessment of the nine-year-old judicial review case and John is due to receive £34.37 in full and final settlement...


Greater Manchester Law Centre is ‘fighting together for free access to justice’

GMLC is committed to restoring legal aid and to creating a new generation of social welfare lawyers – and to campaigning with others not just for access to advice, but to justice. Through volunteer advisersand law students we have reclaimed over £1m since we set up in August 2016 in benefit entitlements which the DWP wrongly refused claimants in Greater Manchester. This is essential for the individuals involved – but at the same time we know that we need to end the vicious benefit sanctions and halt the current ‘universal credit’which inflict such ahostile environment ontoclaimants, just as we need to challenge the hardships and injustices faced by migrants, some of which have been revealed through the recent Windrush scandal. We continue to support all those affected – thelaw centre is situated in the middle of Moss Side, home to many of the West Indian community – and we continue to argue for and to put into practice the provision of high quality, free, independent, accessible,legal advice for all in need.

Author details: 
John Nicholson

John is a legal aid immigration and asylum barrister at Kenworthys Chambers in Salford. He represented the former South Manchester Law Centre in its first judicial review against the then LSC cuts in 2010.