Authors:Sue James
Last updated:2023-11-10
At the bar: Thankfully, some things never change
Marc Bloomfield
As LAG turned 45, Sue James spoke to some of those who were there at the beginning to find out how it started and what they think about the state of access to justice today.
Description: At_the_bar_Dec17Jan18_photo_for_web
Left to right: the inspirational trio of Simon Hillyard, Andrew Phillips and Susan Marsden-Smedley
‘I get very angry still about where we appear to be going. We are going backwards, and that’s not bloody good enough,’ Andrew Phillips tells me over lunch. It was these very same feelings that lay behind the letter he wrote to the Law Society in 1971, complaining of ‘the shambolic state of legal aid’ and sounding a call to arms.
I was invited by LAG’s current director, Steve Hynes, and chair, Laura Janes, to speak to the two surviving founders, Andrew Phillips and Simon Hillyard, together with its first director, Susan Marsden-Smedley. We meet at the Law Society 113 Restaurant and Bar, where we are joined by Richard Miller, the Society’s head of justice.
It sounds as if the problems you have now are pretty darn similar to what we were talking about and campaigning around.
Over lunch, there is much discussion about the present state of legal aid and access to justice. ‘It sounds as if the problems you have now are pretty darn similar to what we were talking about and campaigning around,’ Simon says. ‘My worry is that we seem to go round in elegant circles.’ Having read a number of back copies of the LAG Bulletin from 1972, I completely agree.
LAG's beginnings
So how did LAG begin? Andrew Phillips thinks it started from a discussion among colleagues one evening at the Society of Labour Lawyers – but not formally. He recalls one evening saying, ‘Why don’t we write a letter to the Law Society and call a meeting?’ He tells me he wanted to ‘test the water’ because ‘the world was getting ever more complicated and the citizens’ need for access to legal advice ever more frequent, yet there seemed to be less and less being done about it’.
The meeting was arranged in Andrew’s office, but as it wasn’t big enough he borrowed a room from the lawyers upstairs. He was asked how many would be attending. ‘I don’t know, maybe 20 to 30,’ he replied. ‘But that evening we were inundated.’ Records show there were at least 70 people at that meeting, all concerned with the same issue: legal aid and access to justice.
Susan was at the meeting. She had been working with the Nuffield Foundation, looking at the most effective method of delivering legal services. She had an office and a secretary, so she wrote the initial reports, which themselves gradually turned into the LAG Bulletin. She had the list of attendees from the inaugural meeting and started to share information.
The Bulletin was what it was all about: educating lawyers and others involved in advice-giving.
Susan says: ‘The Bulletin was what it was all about: educating lawyers and others involved in advice-giving, and getting out the information on issues that chiefly affected the poor.’ They were able to do this having received a further grant from the Nuffield Foundation. ‘We acted as co-ordinator and provided channels of communication between various experiments and innovation,’ she explains, noting that the terminology has changed over time: ‘We covered poverty law, what you are referring to as social welfare law, it’s the same thing.’
The 1968 Justice for all report by the Society of Labour Lawyers was seminal to this movement. In the US there was a ‘war on poverty’ and policies had begun to form around community lawyers. This fed into the development of the Law Centre movement and community lawyers in the UK. ‘There was a feeling of inadequacy with where we were,’ says Andrew. ‘It was an idealistic movement.’
Before this, says Andrew, there was a post-war era of extraordinary solidarity ‘and that’s why the welfare state was built with very little opposition, and with it legal aid’. And all practitioners took on legal aid work. ‘It was imbued through the profession,’ he says. He remembers it being ‘a very go-go time where people were thinking imaginatively in all areas of life and lots of balls were in the air’. Susan recalls the committee meetings as ‘tremendous fun’. (I wonder if Steve and Laura share the same view in 2017.)
Simon worked for the Law Society, which, at the time, ran the Legal Aid Scheme. That was before the 1979 Benson Report and the subsequent campaign to remove it from the Society’s control: ‘Whether that was a good thing, in hindsight, I don’t know,’ he says. Andrew recalls the ‘voluminous paperwork involved in people applying for legal aid’. ‘It was such a pain!’ he says, and I haven’t the heart (or the stomach) to let him in on the chaos caused by the introduction of CCMS.
LAG’s two other founders, Cyril Glasser and Richard White, have passed away. Susan pays fitting tribute to Cyril when she says: ‘He was a great guru.’ Simon remembers Richard as ‘the instigator at Birmingham University and the other co-signatory to the original letter’. Andrew has fond memories of Clive Morrick, the first assistant director, ‘who masterminded the invaluable social law coverage over LAG’s early years’.
Under Susan’s directorship, LAG went from being reliant on the initial two-year grant from the Nuffield Foundation to being self-financing through subscriptions. However, this was threatened by the oil crisis when rates of inflation vastly increased. Susan says she ‘sat down and looked at LAG’s finances but there was really nothing we could save on, so we had to find a new source of funding’. This came in the form of the lectures. ‘The early ones were given by Brenda Hoggett, now Lady Hale,’ she says. ‘Brenda used to come down at 5 or 6 pm and deliver lectures.’ At the time, Brenda was living in Manchester and teaching at the university. ‘That saved LAG,’ Susan says, smiling. ‘We began to earn money.’ It was lovely to find out Lady Hale, a patron of my Law Centre in Hammersmith, played a pivotal role in LAG’s survival.
Why the name?
Laura confesses to having subscribed to the magazine as a schoolgirl and always wondering why it was called Legal Action. Susan explains: ‘We were going to call it the Legal Services Column but at that time National CAB had set up the Legal Service Group, so we changed the name, although at the time no one noticed the initials spelt “LAG”.’ Andrew remembers differently: ‘Yes we did, and I thought it would be rather good.’ He also thought the word ‘action’ appealed: ‘We had open minds, we didn’t want to box ourselves in, or restrict the scope of what we were about, because it wasn’t clear how life would evolve. We wanted a name that would stand the test of time and evolution.’
They also wanted the Bulletin to be written so that ‘ordinary professional people, who weren't lawyers, could understand it’. Susan’s philosophy was: ‘If I can’t understand it, then it needs to be rewritten.’
The future?
I’m one of those old farts who believes that being a lawyer is being a public servant.
Andrew has opened many doors to the future, setting up the Citizenship Foundation in 1989 and co-founding the Solicitors Pro Bono Group (now known as LawWorks) in 1996. He’s still trying to effect change, currently working on the introduction of an ‘Admissions Oath’ so that when you are admitted as a solicitor you have to swear a public oath committing to upholding justice. ‘I’m one of those old farts who believes that being a lawyer is being a public servant,’ he says. He started his own firm, Bates, Wells & Braithwaite, in 1970 but never wanted growth for its own sake. His motto is ‘you only live once’, adding: ‘If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing then get out.’ He thinks City lawyers are ‘money-rich and life-poor'. I ask him if that’s why he set up LawWorks. ‘The profession was losing its key quality, you can’t be a profession without doing pro bono,’ he replies. He thinks pro bono work is infectious, but Simon worries that it’s only ‘good enough’ for people who are not well off.
Andrew is also concerned with the closure of the courts and losing our sense of community. ‘You know,’ he remembers, ‘the town I grew up in used to have four courts: the magistrates’, the county, the coroners’ and the court of sessions. Now it doesn’t have any.’ He also feels the idea that justice is dispensed through your community has been lost, and the local knowledge so vital to these cases has been lost too. ‘I go on about it endlessly because it’s such a self-inflicted wound,’ he says. The Ministry of Justice’s current programme of court closures will only worsen this. I mention the current tender for the housing possession court duty schemes, under which courts will be ‘bundled up’ together for each contract. Richard comments: ‘They’ve got this idea that it generates economies of scale and we’ve told them time and time again, there are no economies to be had. You are giving scale with additional cost, and it’s not going to help anybody.’
Andrew also laments the fact that we’ve had ‘a huge barrage of legislation since 1948, all well intended, but it has gone on and on’. ‘We now have an average output of statute law in a parliamentary year of around 20,000 pages,’ he says. ‘Who could keep up with that?’ Richard agrees: ‘After the financial crisis, the government I would have voted for would’ve been the government that was going to do nothing. Because doing anything would have a cost.’ It also means lawyers have become increasingly specialised and Andrew laments the change from the GP lawyers of his early days.1He is not alone in his concern about increasing specialisation, see Louise Christian’s column at December 2015/January 2016 Legal Action 8. And, of course, we have this increasingly complex legislation but, since LASPO, almost no legal aid to allow people to enforce their rights under it.
I ask them how they feel about LAG now. Do they still keep up with it? Susan says: ‘I watched it for a long time after, but I haven’t done it for a while, although I do read the daily newspapers and as far as I can see, LAG is still fighting the same battle.’ Richard shares the same worry, adding: ‘There are many lawyers dropping out of legal aid and fewer coming into it, so it’s for LAG to keep the night oil burning so that all knowledge isn’t lost.’
As its current chair, Laura expresses her hope that LAG ‘continues to thrive with the same practical energy for years to come’. Steve adds: ‘Lawyers still need information on the law. I think our books and the magazine are written in an accessible way so that lawyers and advisers can put it into practice.’
Andrew (justifiably) says: ‘I feel proud of how LAG has thrived and expanded along the lines we set, and has remained a tool for those defending the legal rights and lives of underprivileged people.’ Laura speaks for all of us around the table when she says to the founders: ‘It was a pleasure and an inspiration to meet you all.’
Life before LAG
Andrew’s father had a strong sense of justice: ‘He was born and bred in a Welsh mining town and instilled in me a really amazing sense of what was fair, and it’s never left me.’ He started his career as an office boy in 1957 on £2.10s a week (he didn’t do national service because his ‘papers got lost’). He recalls: ‘I learnt more in that first year than any other year of my life.’ His senior partner was deeply committed to pro bono work and the five managing clerks were from the local community. He feels there was much greater empathy then: ‘The idea that some old woman would be turned away because she couldn’t afford to pay was unthinkable.’
The broadcast media subsequently beckoned. Andrew was the ‘Citizens’ Advisor’ for 22 years on the Jimmy Young radio show, where he was affectionately known as the ‘legal eagle’. Steve remembers ‘listening to the show as a kid’ and hearing Andrew on air. The audience was huge: 10m people listened to Andrew dispense advice. ‘I had a few solicitors’ letters complaining their clients had acted on my advice,’ he says, ‘but I never got sued.’
Susan qualified as a barrister in 1958 but never practised. Why not? ‘I was a bit frightened really,’ she explains. ‘I was frightened of going into chambers, frightened of something new. I felt it was very much a male profession and there would be prejudice against women, even if it was passive prejudice.’ So she ‘got offered some other job and went off and never came back’.
Simon qualified by the five-year route as a solicitor’s clerk (‘I never went anywhere near a university,’ he says). He started in a small firm but spent most of his career at the Law Society. During his time there, he played a part in developing the court duty scheme as ‘one or two local solicitors had introduced this in their local courts, so I put a letter in the Gazette and it sort of rippled out from there. Then I got very involved in needing to do something in police stations: it was before PACE and the scandalous cases of people being denied representation.’ He can’t recall the details, but I surmise he must be referring to the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six miscarriage of justice cases.
Quickfire questions
Heroes in the law
Lady Hale
John Hewlett and Charlie Couch (his managing clerks)
The Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee (particularly Derek Oulton)
Favourite law TV/film
To Kill a Mockingbird (Andrew says 'he wasn't some big celebrity lawyer, he was a local chap')
Favourite song
'Yesterday' ('when all the solicitors worked on the high street', said Steve)
Beethoven's 'Fidelio' (Jon Vickers)
Bellini's 'Norma' (Maria Callas)
Favourite court
The small claims court – bit it didn't follow the plan I proposed
Favourite animal case
When a Suffolk Punch fell in love with a shire horse
1     He is not alone in his concern about increasing specialisation, see Louise Christian’s column at December 2015/January 2016 Legal Action 8. »