Some personal thoughts on legal aid reaching three score years and 10
I first set foot in a solicitors’ office in February 1975 at the start of my articles. After six months, I had the privilege and responsibility of conducting and assisting with legal aid cases for a year. This was in Reading at a then-traditional high-street general practice which covered everything that came through the front door. ‘Is she black? Let David see her,’ the partner would say to the receptionist. The first women’s refuge had just opened in Reading and the LAG Bulletin told you how to get emergency legal aid and domestic violence injunctions.
I had little political insight or awareness at that stage. However, I was astonished to see that in many cases the legal aid lawyer could achieve more in terms of outcome for the client than, say, their GP, social worker or probation officer. I spent my first year qualified in litigation and criminal and civil advocacy.
When I returned to legal aid work in 1980, at Newham Rights Centre (NRC), I gained more insight and awareness. There were two approaches by law centres. One was to do casework and look to achieve results through test cases, and generally to have charitable status. The other was to organise, campaign and work with community groups, and to do some casework not covered by private high-street practice, eg, welfare benefits, and to be political and not charitable. NRC used the second, and that was the camp I decided to join and was, and still am, in at heart.
So looking back, I would not pick out any case under legal aid, but instead highlight:
•Newham Monitoring Project – set up by NRC as one of the first police monitoring projects – which confronted racism and spawned lawyers like Imran Khan and ultimately the Stephen Lawrence case victory.
•The Newham Tenants Tower Blocks Campaign, which succeeded in evacuating Ronan Point and its sister blocks, and rehousing the tenants locally using legal aid in the process.
•The Tower Hamlets Homeless Families Campaign, formed when a racist Liberal council adopted a policy of declaring all Bangladeshi applicants intentionally homeless for leaving accommodation in Bangladesh, where appeals ultimately failed in the House of Lords (as it then was) but in the meantime new applicants succeeded by applying to Newham instead. Labour then regained the council at the next local elections, ending such intentionality decisions.
•Bow County Court Duty Possession Scheme – and its high-water mark, when emergency certificates were being granted at court under delegated powers (until the LAB – or was it LSC – stopped this).
I would also pick out and remember with sadness those comrades (and more) who died prematurely, and with whom I would have wished to grow old and share memories:
•Haleem Thomas – community worker and immigration and employment specialist at NRC who, among other things, introduced me to most things I now value and enjoy.
•Vanora Hereward – an extraordinary solicitor, criminal advocate and welfare benefits specialist.
•Pat Reddin – who, despite cuts, continued with legal aid surveyor expert work and gave a new lease of life to our old, and trained up our young, housing lawyers despite his serious illness.
Finally, in housing terms, there can be no celebration after Grenfell and the failure of legal aid to save the victims and now to help many of the survivors. It is a travesty that the Legal Aid Agency should describe itself as working with others to achieve excellence in the delivery of legal aid. In the words to me of the London area manager, they are only prepared to pay for a bike and not a Rolls Royce (which, of course, excellence demands and is the right of our clients).
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