This is my last editorial: Sue James will take over as LAG’s CEO this month. Generally, I have written about the state of the sector and, in particular, the need for the government to adequately fund a sector that does so much to help people, many of whom are vulnerable, to keep their homes, be paid what they are due, to challenge incorrect decisions and to assert their rights. This strengthens the country’s democratic ideals and its economy. It upholds the rule of law by making organisations accountable.
We have sought to encourage the Ministry of Justice’s work in taking forward the Legal Support Action Plan
and tried not to be too harsh about delays while reminding it that the legal aid and advice sector is on its last legs. Once lawyers and caseworkers leave the areas of law that cannot break even, expertise is lost forever.
We have unashamedly praised the people in the sector, who work for below-market wages, take on difficult cases, face public and often government criticism, and do this while absorbing the stress of acting for clients many of whom have endured difficult lives and have complex issues to resolve. We have been very proud of Legal Action's guest editorials including from Liberty, ATLEU, LAG chair Dr Laura Janes, barrister Abimbola Johnson, ex-LAG director Steve Hynes and solicitor Giles Peaker.
Given the wealth of subjects that I could cover, I hope a few words about LAG are appropriate. We recently revised our vision statement. It reads:
Our vision is a fair legal system that excludes no one, upholds equality and social justice, and meets the needs of the people it serves.
We also clarified what we do:
•Publishing and disseminating accessible, high quality, authoritative and up to date legal information and knowledge.
•Delivering education and training and creating opportunities for the exchange of ideas.
•Being an authoritative voice speaking up for justice and improving law and practice.
I want to applaud LAG’s board
and, indeed, everyone who sits, unpaid, on boards and governing bodies up and down the country. Many in the sector do this and it is not without risk, as the Kids Company case (Official Receiver v Atkinson and others  EWHC 175 (Ch)
) demonstrates. In this case, its CEO, Camila Batmanghelidjh, and its trustees defended the claim that they should be disqualified from being directors in future. Kids Company had entered insolvent liquidation. The claim made the allegation that ‘the defendants caused and/or allowed Kids Company to operate an unsustainable business model’ (para 15). There was ‘no allegation of dishonesty, bad faith, inappropriate personal gain or any other want of probity’.
Falk J decided that none of the directors should be banned, and the CEO was held not to have been a director. The judge concluded:
The charity sector depends on there being capable individuals with a range of different skills who are prepared to take on trusteeship roles … It is vital that the actions of public bodies do not have the effect of dissuading able and experienced individuals from becoming or remaining charity trustees (para 911).
The past year has seen all organisations facing up to the strains caused by the pandemic, by, for example, moving to remote working and looking after colleagues’ mental well-being. This has been difficult for staff but also for boards, which have had to deal with unforeseen challenges.
LAG has a tremendously efficient board of trustees, chaired by Dr Laura Janes with Russell Conway as vice-chair and Oliver Rivers as treasurer. Every board member is valuable because of the skills they bring to the (virtual) table. They understand the division between their oversight role and the role of the CEO. Their commitment, questioning and regular attendance at meetings has underpinned LAG’s success.
LAG has, for some time, been putting considerable resources into its digital products, supported by The Legal Education Foundation
. Following lockdown, we had to move quickly to accelerate this process. Books and magazines stored in an empty office are of little use, so we have responded to our readers’ needs by helping them access electronic versions more easily, initially for free and now at a low cost. Online training has enabled us to reach more people from across the country.
LAG colleagues have been tremendous in dealing with customers’ requests and working out these pricing structures. We are a small team of six, only two of whom are full time.
In 2022, LAG will celebrate its 50th anniversary. It will continue to stand up for those most disadvantaged in society. Our books, training, CCLR and Legal Action will continue to be professional and thought-provoking. LAG is proud to support the sector to help it meet the needs of the people it serves and will continue to speak up on justice matters.