Legal Action Group reaches 45 with the fight for access to justice far from over
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Later this month, LAG celebrates its 45th birthday at a special event where Sir Henry Brooke and LAG patron Baroness Helena Kennedy QC will be in conversation with the writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch. To further mark this milestone, Sue James, housing solicitor and winner of the outstanding achievement award at this year’s LALYs, interviewed two of our longest-serving authors, Jan Luba QC and Nic Madge, in the first of a new series of articles, ‘At the bar’ (see pages 8–10). This will be followed up in next month’s issue by an interview with some of LAG’s founders. Celebrating an anniversary is a good time to reflect on an organisation’s purpose and achievements, as well as looking to the future.
Our 40th anniversary took place in the shadow of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), which received royal assent in May 2012. In the preceding months, LAG worked with other organisations in the Justice for All campaign to amend the legislation. Justice for All and other campaigners won concessions from the government, the most significant of which concerned legal aid in domestic violence cases. Ken Clarke, the then lord chancellor, was also forced to amend the original draft legislation to allow for areas of law to be brought back into the legal aid scheme (Clarke had wanted the scope of legal aid to be defined by the statute to prevent any future changes).
In response to LASPO, LAG established the Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support to continue our campaigning work around access to justice. The commission represented a change of tactics for LAG in response to a hostile political environment.
It played a key role in raising the profile of arguments supporting publicly-funded advice and legal services in the corridors of power. It has also left a legacy of evidence to support its recommendations, which continues to inform policy-makers.
Looking back to five years ago, there was real pessimism about whether LAG could survive the impending storm that the combination of LASPO and local authority cuts to the not-for-profit sector was about to unleash. The cuts have indeed had a disastrous impact on access to justice for the public, with increasing numbers of litigants in person clogging up the courts system and hundreds of thousands of people being denied basic advice on legal problems. Also, as we feared, the number of firms and advice centres has fallen since 2012, further reducing the service available for the public.
The void in access to justice left by LASPO cannot be filled by a cobbled-together combination of self-help, deregulation, pro bono and digitised services.
Despite this reduction, the market for LAG’s publications remains buoyant. We continue to add new book titles to our list and book sales now make up half of our income. We have also embraced digital publishing, making some of our products available online and, later this year, we aim to launch a new digital version of Legal Action. The message we get from readers is that you want both paper and digital versions of our publications and so, to use the jargon, we will continue with this multi-channel approach.
LAG survives in large part due to the loyalty of our staff, authors and trainers. Above all, we are fortunate that there remains a significant number of individuals, firms and advice agencies who continue to buy our publications and attend our events. We know you support LAG because of your deep commitment to providing access to justice for poor and disadvantaged communities.
Despite the cuts, and often in the face of political indifference, there is a fundamental cussedness about why individual lawyers and advisers stay in publicly-funded work. As a policy voice, LAG shares your cussedness. We believe we are doing the right thing and don’t want to take the easy way out by changing what we do.
For many politicians, LASPO was supposed to be the last word on legal aid policy. Due to austerity, their argument ran, we could no longer afford to provide advice and representation in all but a rump of priority cases, which directly engage human rights or where a citizen’s freedom is at stake. In response, some in the legal services world seem to argue that the void in access to justice left by LASPO and other cuts can be filled by a cobbled-together combination of self-help, deregulation, pro bono and digitised services. This is a nonsense.
Innovation should be embraced and not dismissed as a diversion from budget cutbacks. For example, the digitisation of the justice system, though not without its flaws, is the single most welcome development initiated by the government in recent years on access to justice policy. Technological advances will assist in providing access to justice, but we maintain that our basic critique holds true. Information and other support services can only take the public so far along the road of enforcing their rights; at some stage, they will often need the assistance of a lawyer or other adviser to obtain an effective remedy. If you are poor or, increasingly, of average means, that assistance needs ultimately to be paid for by the state.
To be concise, the reasons why LAG was founded have not gone away and we intend to fight on.

About the author(s)

Steve Hynes
Steve Hynes is director of LAG. He is a well-known commentator in the written and broadcast media on legal aid and access to justice issues.