Authors:Roger Smith
Last updated:2023-10-16
Towards a National Legal Service
Marc Bloomfield
Description: SLL_Towards a National Legal Service_cover_cropped
Roger Smith discusses the Society of Labour Lawyers’ new pamphlet.
On a hot evening in September 2023, the Society of Labour Lawyers (SLL) convened in the (thankfully air-conditioned) offices of the law firm now the home of last Labour lord chancellor, Lord Falconer. The reason: the launch of a pamphlet entitled Towards a National Legal Service: new visions for access to justice. This is a collection of contributions designed to put fire into the political debate on the future of legal aid.
The SLL tends to have a somewhat cyclical existence – membership rising in numbers in the run-up to an election and drifting a little in between. It has, however, a consistent record in influential publications at critical times. The best known, brandished at the launch event, was Justice for All, published in 1968 with the Fabian Society. This contained the famous annex, written by Michael Zander, that reported on poverty law provision in the USA and gave birth to the Law Centre movement in the UK a few years later. But before that had come a major tome edited by Professor Glanville Williams entitled The Reform of the Law (1951); later came Law Reform for All (1996), edited by then chair of the SLL, David Bean, now a respected lord justice. Many of the ideas in these collections became Labour policy and – in the good times – government policy to boot.
The impact of the current publication is yet to be seen. Its origin lies in a seminar convened by Stephen Hockman KC, the SLL’s former chair, in March. As a result, it contains a number of discrete snapshots of analysis and advocacy for policy change. There has not been the time to work these into one coherent programme, but the overall direction of travel is suggested by the title: the SLL is looking for a national legal service, whether with capitals or in lower case. In other words, it is seeking a strategic approach to the provision of civil legal aid. This would build on the idea of the community legal service advanced by Lord Falconer in his glory years as lord chancellor.
The common theme of the booklet is set out by Nic Madge, who edited it, in his introduction: first, legal aid must be presented as a service to its clients, not a source of income for its providers; second, legal aid is now so eviscerated that it needs fundamental reform.
At its best, legal aid was transformational, helping to shift the balance of power within society and providing justice for the many, not the few. It enabled women to gain injunctions against violent men; tenants to prevent eviction and harassment by rogue landlords; workers to gain compensation for injuries suffered at work; and consumers to get redress for faulty goods and dodgy services. Now, though, it is broken beyond repair.
There is, alas, a subtext acknowledged by most contributors. As every day brings another financial disaster for a government crumbling at about the same rate as the concrete in its schools and hospitals, money will be tight for even the most idealistic of new administrations.
Common threads can be drawn from the diverse chapters in the booklet. That is one big advantage of the idea of a National Legal Service, advocated in the first contribution and the subject of a longer paper available from LAG. It provides for a big tent to contain a range of ideas. These need to be based on a new mission expressed in the modern way by reference to its impact: the provision of information, advice and representation to assist people to resolve their legal problems in the most appropriate way. This would be based on four pillars: strategic leadership; technology and innovation; a comprehensive service (merging legal aid with the advice sector); and sustainable funding.
The question of funding runs, of course, throughout the book. Contributions from Legal Aid Practitioners Group, The Law Society, Carol Storer, and various practitioners hammer away at the cuts and their impact on the dwindling number of providers. Liz Davies KC, Sue James and Simon Mullings give a clear-eyed analysis of the impact of the Cameron-Osborne cuts on housing law. They also raise an important flag on the impact of pro bono work – which any cash-strapped government may be tempted to hype. Housing law is complex and requires specialist providers.
Two studies are worth reading on the potential response. Barristers Andrew Hogan and Matthew Turner raise the need to increase the contribution to civil legal aid from awards of costs. In their sights are the abandonment of the limitation of fixed recoverable costs and extending qualified one-way costs shifting (QOCS in the jargon of the trade). They claim: ‘By repealing, amending and making further provision in the rules as they currently stand, access to justice can be increased for individuals, without increasing expenditure from the public purse’ (page 14). Well. Even the hard-hearted shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, must surely be impressed by such a deal. The last chapter is worth a particular read: Joseph Kelen provides an international perspective to the debate on the economic costs and benefits of civil legal aid.
The SLL has done us all a great favour. Get this pamphlet and get it discussed.