My conversations in London started with the wonderful Julie Bishop of the Law Centres Network, who briefed me on the devastating effects of the legal aid cuts, the state of the sector, and linked me with key organisations. I then met with Professor Roger Smith, a freelance writer and expert on legal aid and access to justice issues within the UK but also internationally. Together we attended an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) meeting of the House of Commons, where community and law organisation representatives spoke to what I assume was meant to be a room full of parliamentarians (but may have been mostly interested parties) about the effects of the legal aid cuts. This was followed by a launch of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) Legal Aid Manifesto, a detailed text setting out the legal aid reforms proposed by the LAPG.
That evening caused me to again reflect on how community (and here legal aid) lawyers frame the narrative of why their work is important, and of how we can best work to foster conversations with government that allow for what Fran Peavey calls ‘movement’. These are discussions that avoid predictable patterns, and generate new ideas and possibilities. Fran, for example, writes about how strategic questioning is one tool with which such movement can be encouraged. There are of course many others in the toolbox.
Later in the week I met with, among others, representatives of the Hackney Community Law Centre, and Islignton Law Centre. My impression was that while continuing to provide a good service to those in need, both generalist centres were feeling the constricting effects of the legal aid cuts. At Islington, I was also lucky to meet with Baljeet Sandhu, who coordinates its specialist Migrant & Refugee Children’s Legal Unit (MCLU). She spoke passionately, and hopefully, of her work bringing children’s rights language into the practice of immigration law with respect to children in the UK.
In particular, she referred me to a landmark case brought by the MCLU’s predecessor project, ZH (Tanzania) v Secretary State of the Home Department (2011), in which the Court relied on children’s rights principles in allowing a mother of two British citizen children, aged 9 and 12, to remain in the country despite her “appalling immigration history”. The case set a valuable precedent in which two young children were not effectively punished, through the immigration system, for their mother’s acts. Baljeet spoke also of her efforts to unite lawyers working on these issues by establishing a Children’s Rights Network, and of working with funders to fund not only casework, but also the time required for reflection and planning of effective strategic litigation.
Finally, I also spoke to representatives from a series of varied public interest law organisations – the Public Law Project, Liberty, and Just for Kids Law – as well as with Damon Gibbons of the Centre for Responsible Credit, a policy research organisation. For reasons of brevity, a snapshot of the matters we discussed is as follows:
- One current campaign focus for Liberty (UK) is human rights, and the retention of the Human Rights Act in particular, which provides many key civil rights protections. Liberty’s Legal Director, James Welch, talked me through the 2013 case of Verna Bryant, in which the right to life enshrined in article 2 of the Human Rights Act was relied upon successfully by Liberty to secure a proper inquest in relation to Verna’s daughter’s death. Through the inquest process, a series of institutional failings were found to have contributed to the murder. This at the same time worked to dispel the misconception that the Act had led to the undue release of her daughter’s murderer. The case is a powerful example of how litigation can be effective in reframing a political issue of contention.
- Public Law Project strategically focuses on promoting access to public law remedies, such as judicial review, for disadvantaged communities. In March 2015, it successfully challenged new regulations limiting the provision of legal aid in judicial review cases. It is also currently running a project to monitor the operation of “exceptional funding” legal aid provisions that provide for applications for legal aid in areas not normally covered in defined categories of “exceptional” cases. See here for more details.
- Out of Just for Kids Law, a children’s advocacy and rights organisation, has emerged a quite interesting youth-led campaign called Let us Learn, which aims to help young people from migrant backgrounds in the UK access university educations on equal funding conditions.
- With Damon Gibbons of the Centre for Responsible Credit, I discussed the UK campaign for an interest rate cap, and tales of innovative consumer credit action in other places. In Germany, for example, he told me of how Udo Reifner, Professor at Hamburg University organised for consumer agencies to submit court complaints on the same day regarding an excessive interest rate charge. Through this coordinated approach, they were successful in compelling the court to rule that no lender should be permitted to charge more than twice the market average. In the 1990s in Japan, there was a huge expansion of high cost lending – with loans available from automated booths in the major cities. The expansion stemmed from a confusion concerning the interest rate legislation, which was only clarified after a lengthy campaign led by lawyers in the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations and with the support of the Japanese labour movement. In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that lenders were retrospectively liable for excessive interest charges and many were subsequently bankrupted by legal claims against them. For further details of the Japanese experience see the CfRC report ‘Taking on the moneylenders: lessons from Japan’. For an analysis of personal debt in the UK, see Damon’s book, “Solving Britain’s Personal Debt Crisis”.