A hard-working advocate for some of the most vulnerable local people has been named lawyer of the year.
Sue James, supervising solicitor at the Hammersmith Law Centre, won the national award for outstanding achievement at the legal aid lawyer of the year awards.
A legal aid lawyer for 28 years, she joined the centre at 363 North End Road, Fulham, a decade ago.
Paying tribute to her selfless work at the centre was Cllr Sue Fennimore, H&F Cabinet Member for Social Inclusion, she said: “Sue’s dedication to getting legal help to those who need it most in society is an inspiration.
“She has devoted a huge amount of time and effort to causes that are crucially important to our local community. And her commitment to protecting the rights of everyday people is truly admirable.”
She was nominated for the award by Baroness Hale, recently named as the first female president of the UK supreme court, who is also a patron of the Hammersmith Law Centre.
Sue, who said she was delighted with the award, has 20 years’ experience of housing issues – helping those threatened with eviction.
She is also experienced in the fields of community care and mental health, representing vulnerable clients detained under the Mental Health Act.
“I trained in law in Birmingham and Nottingham,” she said. “But I got my first job at the Hillingdon Law Centre. I was inspired by Paul Foot and Gareth Pierce.”
Four years ago she became a founding trustee of another law centre, in Ealing – where she lives.
The lawyer of the year award was presented to Sue by Baroness Doreen Lawrence. The citation spoke of Sue’s dedication to battling for the rights of ‘the dispossessed and repossessed, the mentally ill and the poor’.
A colleague said of Sue: “There can't be many people who work full time in one law centre and in their spare time set up another.”
In the years she has worked in legal aid, Sue has seen a steady and significant erosion in funding. “When I started at Hammersmith we had 13 lawyers; but after cuts to funding and to legal aid there are now just five,” she said.
However, she said that Hammersmith & Fulham Council had been ‘hugely supportive’.
“It’s brilliant to have the support of the council for the work that we do,” she said. “Thousands of people face eviction each year, but the public reaction to the Grenfell Tower tragedy shows there is real empathy.”
As well as her legal work, Sue speaks out against ‘austerity justice’ in a column for the website Legal Voice, regularly reporting on her clients’ stories, including a woman who took her one lightbulb from room to room, and a mother penalised under the bedroom tax after her daughter died, leaving her with a spare room.
“Through her writing Sue has done more than many professional campaigners to spread the true story of legal aid to the unconverted or the unbothered,” said the lawyer of the year judges.
When the Bush Theatre in Uxbridge Road put on the play The Invisible, by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, in 2015, Sue helped the playwright with a lot of the background stories and statistics.