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A History of the Society of Labour Lawyers, as delivered by Sir Ross Cranston at the Society’s Annual General Meeting on 4 December 2017 in his speech on ‘…And Access to Justice’


The AGM is a good time to reflect on the history, achievements and mission of the Society of Labour Lawyers, particularly as we are coming up to the 70th anniversary of the Society in 2018. 


The Haldane Society split in 1948 over an issue of whether membership of the Labour Party was a pre-requisite. The Haldanes included Communists such as Denis Pritt QC (if, like me, you trawl through commercial cases 1920s you will know he had a huge practice and appeared in many great cases. He tried to be a [Labour] MP in 1930 but failed, then became involved in supporting the National Council for Civil Liberties and the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, continuing to support good causes through to the 1950s. But he had a massive blindspot. He went to the Soviet Union in 1936, saw the Moscow trials and said that this was ‘fair justice’. He became persona non grata to the Labour Party after the Second World War)


In the Haldane Society’s Annual General Meeting of 1948, Gerald Gardiner QC, Chair of the Haldanes, moved a motion that only Labour Party members should be permitted to serve on the Executive Committee. This story is told in splendid accounts by Nick Blake and Harry Rajak. In short, that amendment was lost. So Gerald Gardiner and a number of prominent members left and formed the Society of Labour Lawyers, its membership confined to members of the Labour Party.


For a while, the SLL manifesto continued to be ‘The Reform of the Law’ edited by Glanville Williams and published in 1951 under the auspices of the Haldane Society, having been authored before the split. The twenty authors were not identified and only one was female, but their proposals were quite radical then and even now. For example, they proposed the abolition of the QC system and achieved some compromise. One major proposal was for a Ministry of Justice, echoing a call from Lord Haldane. One major aim of that Ministry was to keep the law up to date. ‘The Reform of the Law’ called for publications to train judges, to unify the professions, reduce costs of entry for students, extend civil liberties and reform employment law: ending dismissal without notice and granting maternity leave. Many of these legal amendments were implemented, although not until the Labour Government took office in 1964. Gerald Gardiner (who was to become Harold Wilson’s Lord Chancellor) and Andrew Martin (Dr Martin was a Hungarian who was called to the English Bar: he became a Professor at Southampton University and the right hand to Gardiner) edited ‘Law Reform Now’, published in 1963. Martin came up with the notion of the Law Commission, which was created in a 1965 Act. As things turn full circle, the present chair of the Law Commission is a former treasurer of this society, Lord Justice David Bean. 


Other proposals, in both the 1951 book and the 1963 book included Legal Aid being touched upon, but not in great depth. In 1951, there was concern that only lawyers were on the Legal Aid Committee, not consumer representatives. In 1956, we proposed widening Legal Aid in criminal cases and an extension of legal aid to tribunal proceedings. But that was about it.


More radical contributions came in 2 pamphlets published by the Fabians (one published in 1968: ‘Legal Services for All’). To give a flavour of the content of these booklets, proposals included: strengthening and expanding Law Centres, raising the means test threshold, allowing for some Legal Aid above that threshold, funding lawyers in Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, an increase in the duty solicitor scheme and encouraging public interest law firms. This was all developed in a sophisticated, historical and comparative way. Long term, we proposed a new Legal Services scheme, with legal rights to be enforced at public expense. This was later developed to include the Office of Fair Trading, who could take action on behalf of consumers, and Royal Commission recommendations. All came to nothing with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.


Like clockwork, we issued another manifesto prior to 2005: ‘Law Reform for All’ edited by David Bean; and again proposed a radical regime of reform. In many areas the Labour delivered or went further, setting up a Judicial Appointments Commission (following Glanville Williams’ earlier recommendations), rationalising the tribunals service, incorporating the European Convention of Human Rights into British Law, strengthening Freedom of Expression, the Equalities Act and creating new Environmental Rights; all chapters in ‘Law Reform for All’.


But with Access to Justice, the story has not been as rosy. One obvious problem is money. Another problem is that the Legal Aid budget was crowded out by criminal law and some Human Rights. When my Dudley North constituents had consumer problems, they weren’t able to access Legal Assistance. In Professor Roger Smith’s contribution in 2005, he said there are ‘no easy choices’ in Legal Services Policy. Restrictions on spending mean that money will run out: this is a problem facing all countries. He returned to the subject in 2015 and identified the use of technology as a way forward, applying lateral thinking to add to the work of our pamphlets in the 2000s.


As we have mentioned, we have got the Bach Commission, with its ambitious agenda for a Right to Justice Act, a Justice Commission, Legal Education and an Online Court offering advice and information. Their proposals have deservedly won wide support. But I say, with respect (genuinely, not as this is sometimes said to judges!), that the Bach Commission does not mean that the task is done. Firstly, the reach of Commission is heavily law oriented. In the past, the Society has been seen as involving non-lawyers and solutions proposed have not necessarily involved leg institutions: perhaps there could be ombudsmen. Secondly, there is the task of campaigning for the Commission’s recommendations. In the past the Society has argued that expenditure on Access to Justice can be as important as health and Education. We have used Dame Hazel Genn’s argument of a ‘cascade effect’ – that providing early legal assistance can prevent, for example, housing problems that have cascading effects on people’s lives. But, always, the competing demands on the public purse can drown out Access to Justice.


The Society of Labour Lawyers have achieved a great lot in its 69 years. There have been much done to deserve praise. But there is still much to achieve!



A History of the Society of Labour Lawyers and Access to Justice

A History of the Society of Labour Lawyers, as delivered by Sir Ross Cranston at the Society’s Annual General Meeting on 4 December 2017 in his speech on ‘…And Access...

The Society of Labour Lawyers’ Housing Sub-Group hosted a well-attended round-table discussion on Wednesday 11th October,  chaired by Liz Davies, discussing the practical, political and legal routes to putting empty homes to good use.

First, we heard from John Hobson QC of Landmark Chambers, who provided us with a legal background and a workable and exciting proposal. We then congratulated the newly elected Labour MP for Kensington & Chelsea, Emma Dent-Coad, and learnt more about the practical effect of vacant property in her constituency. Labour’s council leader in Kensington & Chelsea, Robert Atkinson, expressed his support and enthusiasm for change in the borough.

We have a chronic shortage of homes. The cause of this problem could be traced back to the ‘right to buy’ and the treasury’s stranglehold on local authorities’ funding: which restricts them from building replacement council housing when needed. There is no realistic right to buy in Kensington & Chelsea, according to Emma Dent-Coad, and Robert Atkinson could not dispute that council funds are emaciated.

Yet there seems to be an abundance of empty, available property. Dent-Coad presented evidence that newly-built flats in Chelsea are being deliberately kept off the market to keep prices high. Why can’t these empty properties be brought into public use - especially in times of catastrophe (for example the Grenfell tower fire)?

 The rights of owners are expressed in Article 1 Protocol 1 of the ECHR: which guarantee every natural or legal person ‘peaceful enjoyment’ of their property. However, even this right is qualified: that no one should be deprived their property ‘except in the public interest’.

Hobson laid out case-law to conclude that before we begin housing the homeless in empty tower-blocks we would need: 1) express statutory authority; and 2) to provide fair compensation.

A possible mechanism already in existence would be to enforce individual compulsory purchase orders (CPOs). These are eventually effective, but are cumbersome - often giving rise to lengthy Court battles and requiring the payment of uplifted compensation – so should be seen as a last resort and unsuitable in times of emergency. 

Hobson’s twin suggestions are as follows:

Firstly, he proposes a register of vacant property. Section 151 of the Housing & Planning Act 2016 is intended to allow local authorities to create a register of brown-field land. There seems to be no reason this couldn’t be extended to register empty homes. Emma Dent-Coad spoke about photographing Chelsea’s ‘dark buildings’ and suggested she had already begun compiling such a list for the council.   

Secondly, local authorities should be empowered to take possession of land on the register. Hobson identified another new piece of legislation that could be used: the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017. Section 17 enables local authorities to take possession of land with a CPO. However, this Act would require formal amendments to the procedure for purchasing properties on the vacant property register. Firstly, he would remove the requirement for 3 month’s notice or shorten this period; secondly, he would remove the potentially obstructive counter-notice procedure; and thirdly he would award compensation only for loss of use of vacant property specifically, not uplifted compensation for loss of occupation.

If these changes were enacted, by a Labour government or under public pressure, local authorities would have a real opportunity to use empty homes without facing the expense and delay of a compulsory purchase order. Furthermore, we would expect this to have a positive effect on the housing market, as owners might rather rent out or sell their property at an equitable and less artificial price than face the risk of compulsory purchase.

We finished with a round-table discussion. Former Grenfell resident Thomasina Hessel explained her frustration at the need for a formal legislative process. It was suggested that a campaigning group could lobby for a private member’s bill on the topic. Dent-Coad pointed out that in Singapore you cannot buy a new home unless you want to live there. SLL member Joel Ainsworth asked why similar legislation could not be enforced here and if, in any case, a non-EU buyer would have standing to take their case to the ECHR? Hobson queried whether in any case we treat A1P1 ECHR too cautiously: it does include an exception for public policy, so it might stretch more than expected. Other alternative suggestions were a relaxation on squatting laws, requiring a resident beneficial owner when registering land at the land registry, and a copy of St Ives’s ban on new-build second homes (recently approved by the High Court).

SLL thanks Liz Davies, chair of the Housing group, and Garden Court Chambers for hosting this event. If you wish to get involved in SLL groups, please contact me on administrator@societyoflabourlawyers.org.uk

 Oliver Kavanagh 

Appropriating Empty Property to House the Homeless

The Society of Labour Lawyers’ Housing Sub-Group hosted a well-attended round-table discussion on Wednesday 11th October,  chaired by Liz Davies, discussing the practical, political and legal routes to putting empty homes to...

by Hannah Gomersall (delegate)

This year, the Society of Labour Lawyers held an exciting programme of fringe events which brought in voices from across the legal profession and labour movement.


On Sunday night, we heard from Baroness Shami Chakrabarti (Shadow Attorney General), Nick Thomas-Symonds MP (Shadow Solicitor General), Baroness Diane Hayter (Shadow Spokesperson for Exiting the EU), Christina Blacklaws (Vice President of the Law Society) and Andrew Langdon QC (Chair of the Bar Council) on “The Law and Brexit”, Chaired by Kate O’Rourke. It was clear from discussion that a great deal of work has already been done by the professional associations to highlight legal concerns which must be urgently addressed by the government before we exit the EU: from financial regulation, to environmental law, to child abduction. There is considerable expertise in these areas within our membership and also evident was an appetite from the labour front bench for our assistance on these legal issues however possible.


On Monday, SLL joined Lord Bach and the Fabians in launching the commission’s final report on Access to Justice. The event was well attended and audience members welcomed the commission’s recommendations as they recalled the effects LASPO has had on their own practices and experiences.


On Monday night, Young Labour Lawyers held a well-attended drinks reception on the topic of Wellbeing in the legal profession. We were lucky that many members of the shadow justice team were keen to join us to discuss the stresses placed on the profession at the moment, particularly in the area of legal aid work and young lawyers including those trying to access the profession.


On Tuesday, SLL held a joint event with Justice on the modernisation of the justice system. Speakers included Baroness Shami Chakrabarti (Shadow Attorney General), Richard Burgon (Shadow Secretary of State for Justice), Andrea Coomber (Director of JUSTICE), Christina Blacklaws (Vice President of the Law Society), Andrew Langdon QC (Chair of the Bar Council).

Questions from the audience suggested a number of ideas on how technology can be used to widen access to justice, although inevitably discussion returned to a court system presently at breaking point due to funding pressures.


As the Society of Labour Lawyers delegate at conference this year, I was proud to vote for an amendment proposed by the Jewish Labour Movement and adopted by the NEC to outlaw discrimination in all forms from our party. However, I felt that the quality of the conference floor debate on this issue was at times not a positive reflection of Labour values. Fortunately, the motion passed. Elsewhere, I was disappointed that delegates chose not to debate Brexit, the greatest issue currently facing the country (though it was at least a topic for discussion at numerous fringe events).


Although there were no timetabled floor debates on Access to justice, it’s fair to say the issue took centre stage at fringe events this year. At a timetabled Justice Policy Seminar for delegates, case study after case study was raised by delegates concerned about the devastation of family and immigration legal aid, prohibitively high court fees, and criminal and housing legal advice deserts. There was a renewed sense of purpose following the release of the Bach Commission’s final report on Access to Justice that the current situation is unsustainable, as well as an optimism that we could gather a cross-party consensus for an urgent and overdue review of LASPO.


Hannah Gomersall

Labour Party Conference Report 2017

by Hannah Gomersall (delegate) This year, the Society of Labour Lawyers held an exciting programme of fringe events which brought in voices from across the legal profession and labour movement....

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