Authors:Sue James
Last updated:2023-09-18
Editorial: Improvements in legal rights won't work if we don't address the legal knowledge gap.
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Railway (Andrew Martin_Pixabay)
In May, I left the comfort of my office in Lady Hale Gate to take LAG on tour to Manchester. It was great to be invited to speak at Greater Manchester Law Centre’s (GMLC’s) Mind the Gap event – the ‘Gap’ being the gap in the provision of advice, legal aid, legal remedies and legal knowledge. It was good, too, to see so many people in attendance at Thompsons Solicitors, which was hosting the event. Neighbouring colleagues from Vauxhall Community Law and Information Centre had also made the (shorter) journey from Liverpool to hear speeches from Salford and Eccles MP Rebecca Long-Bailey as well as Polina Sparks from Long Covid Support, myself and Jason Tetley, director of GMLC.
The knowledge gap is something that we need to address if we are to take advantage of improvements in legal rights. In Scotland, changes were made in 2017, aiming to rebalance the relationship between tenants and their landlords so that the former could better assert their rights, challenge rent rises and ask for repairs to be completed. However, the findings from RentBetter’s second wave of research highlight that more needs to be done to support low-income private renters to assert their legal rights. Both Wales, with the changes coming in July under the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016, and England, with the forthcoming white paper on the Renters Reform Bill, should heed the lessons learnt in Scotland: it will require more and wider policy changes than rental reform.
Having too many laws is the subject of barrister David Renton’s new book, Against the Law: Why Justice Requires Fewer Laws and a Smaller State.1Watkins Media, July 2022. I was lucky to get an advance copy (it isn’t a LAG book, unfortunately) on the promise that I’d review it for Legal Action, and started to read it on the train up to Manchester. You’ll have to wait until July for the review, but it is something I often thought about when advising tenants: having a complex 15-page tenancy agreement is of little benefit to protect a tenant’s rights if they can’t understand it. And since housing went out of scope in 2013, they can’t get help from a legal aid lawyer. We now have more laws and less legal aid.
One law that continues to make a difference is the Human Rights Act 1998 (although it is now under threat, with the government promoting a new Bill of Rights). Professor Leslie Thomas QC writes about the impact and importance of the Act for inquests as part of our 50-year anniversary celebrations. He notes that before the Act, there was no equality of arms between the interested parties in an inquest, the scope of the inquest was narrow, and proper scrutiny was lacking, with no right to disclosure. This inequality was compounded by there being no legal aid for inquests until October 2000.
Leslie joins in the celebration of LAG’s 50th year with some kind words about Legal Action as well as the authors who have contributed to its success as the ‘go-to journal for keeping up to date and relevant in the fight against injustice’ by sharing their knowledge and skills over many years. We second Leslie’s praise and are, of course, extremely grateful to our authors for their contributions.
Congratulations to all the shortlisted candidates at the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards. It is always such a special event, and this year the awards ceremony (on 12 July) will be in-person again after two years online. It will be a fabulous night (as always) but slightly more special for me this year because Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre’s receptionist, Simone McGlynn, is shortlisted for the new legal aid support staffer award. I spent 15 years working with Simone and know what a difference she has made to so many people who came through our doors – she is the heart and soul of the Law Centre. It is great to have this new award in recognition of the support staff who make life in the office better, support our clients and get everything working again when it breaks down (usually the photocopier).
Finally, I’d like to say a special thank you to the staff at GMLC for making me feel so welcome. It is hard to believe that there is just one Law Centre serving the whole of Greater Manchester when there used to be eight. You are doing an amazing job. Legal advice changes lives. If the government is serious about levelling up, then legal aid should be a key part of any provision.
We would like to hear more about access to justice across the UK, so please get in touch.
1     Watkins Media, July 2022. »