The president of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, spoke last night (17 May 2018) of the importance of early advice for common legal issues and was critical of legal aid cuts that mean ‘problems get pushed on to other departments of state’. Speaking at the opening of Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre’s (HFLC’s) new offices, she praised the organisation as it was able to assist people with multiple problems. She is a patron of the charity, which is run by a management committee of people from the area.
In a short speech that drew cheers from an audience of lawyers and friends of HFLC, Lady Hale said she was ‘most proud of the Unison
case’, which was decided by the Supreme Court last year. The case concerned the fees that the government had introduced for employment tribunals. The court found that they impeded access to justice and that the secondary legislation that introduced them was illegal as it breached the constitutional right of access to justice. There has been speculation that the Unison judgment
might form the basis of a challenge to the many restrictions on access to justice that the lack of legal aid has inflicted (see April 2018 Legal Action
3), but Lady Hale warned that ‘access to lawyers would be harder to challenge than access to the courts’.
Stephen Cowan, the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, also spoke at the event, along with local MP Andy Slaughter. Cowan explained that when Labour took control of the council, it prioritised funding HFLC as it had been ‘a privilege seeing people fight for [it] when it had been under threat of closure’ from the previous Conservative-led administration. He said it was a ‘waste of time being in power if you cannot do things’ and he was proud that they had been able to help in securing its new premises, along with a 10-year funding agreement. Andy Slaughter, the former shadow legal aid minister, said the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 ‘took away legal aid from the majority of people in this country’ and that it was fortunate that HFLC was available to assist with the sort of ‘bread-and-butter legal problems’ many local people face.
Supervising solicitor Sue James has worked at HFLC for 10 years and won the outstanding achievement award at last year’s Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards (she also writes for Legal Action
and is an editor, along with Vicky Ling, Simon Pugh and Tony Edwards, of the forthcoming LAG Legal Aid Handbook 2018/19
). She said the new premises, which are in the council’s library building, will give HFLC room to expand and ‘build [it] back up again into the vibrant Law Centre it was when I first started here’.
Lady Hale also urged people to ‘come on the London Legal Walk
or sponsor someone’. The walk takes place on Monday 21 May.