SLL AGM 2017 and A History of the Society of Labour Lawyers and Access to Justice from Sir Ross Cran

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!