Sue James speaks to Professor Linda Mulcahy about a project to document the history of the Law Centres movement.
When Professor Linda Mulcahy pitched the idea of an oral history of radical lawyering to the British Library, it was so interested, especially in the covers of Law Centre annual reports, that she didn’t get past the third of what was an 18-slide presentation. ‘We were also very interested in the covers but there was a lot more inside,’ she says. ‘We started talking to the Library about different representations of community – whether you had clients, staff or campaigns on the covers – and the covers often encapsulated all these interesting things that Law Centres are doing. So we sold it very quickly.’
‘Enhancing Democratic Habits: an oral history of the Law Centres movement’ was launched at the Law Centres Network (LCN) AGM on 6 November 2020, coinciding with the 50th birthdays of the network and North Kensington Law Centre, the first in the UK. Linda, who is the project team leader, has worked with the British Library on oral history projects before – Crown Court clerks and women lawyers – what she describes as marginal legal voices. In this project, she will be doing 65 oral history interviews of up to 12 hours each. She says: ‘What is really important about life history approaches is it’s a history of people who have fuelled the movement and I feel very strongly about that. A lot of the histories of radical lawyering have been done in the [United] States and those that have been done in the UK are normally about the early years of the movement but never about the personalities.’
Linda was given four years and £1m to spend on documenting the history of the Law Centres movement. It’s a collaborative project between the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford (where Linda works), Queen’s University Belfast, LCN and the British Library. The study is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). We first reported on it in the June 2021 issue
The goals of the project are:
•to enhance the general public’s, law students’ and aspiring lawyers’ knowledge about Law Centres;
•to create sound archives and display the annual reports;
•to build capacity in Law Centres for them to create their own archives with the help of the British Library; and
•if the project can get more resources, to develop teaching packs for children to understand more about their rights in the community.
The project will document not just the people in the movement now, but those who were previously and moved on to do something else, particularly whether their experiences of Law Centres transformed what they went on to do and if it changed their attitudes. Linda says that she has been surprised at the number of Law Centre romances there were and is having lessons on different shades of left in the early years.
Linda says: ‘One of the reasons the project is called “Enhancing Democratic Habits” is that there is a lot of debate in the media, and academic debate at the moment, around democide or the post-democratic society. One of the things I was told made our project so popular when reviewed by the AHRC was that we argued Law Centres and other local advice centres played a really important part in making people feel that things can change for them, that they are not just passive recipients, and that changes the way they feel about civic society. Law Centres make people feel they have a voice.’
She is six months into the project, documenting the multiple ways that radical lawyers have influenced change – both individual and systemic – with casework, precedent setting, campaigns and working with their local community. When Linda says, ‘This is very much my passion project,’ I am jealous – it would be mine too.