Working together for justice: the movement's first thirty years
The first Law Centres have been hard at work since 1970. In 1974, they have set up the Law Centre Working Group, which then incorporated in 1978, setting up what became the Law Centres Federation, now known as the Law Centres Network.
In fact, the background and context of legal aid initiatives in Britain goes back to the 1945 Rushcliffe Committee report and to the Legal Aid and Legal Advice Act 1949 that followed it. This first legal aid provision in British history reflected the vision of a fairer society that had been incubating during the war.
However, the government initially designated the work of legal aid to solicitors in private practice. This arrangement severely restricted the amount, location and extent of legal aid
that was available to the poor and disadvantaged in society. In the 1960s, both major political parties acknowledged this inadequacy, while in the United States a solution to a similar situation arose in the form of ‘neighbourhood law offices’. In light of this experience the first Law Centres were set up in the UK.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the establishment of Law Centres was perceived as threatening by solicitors in private practice. It was only in 1977 that an agreement was struck with the Law Society which accommodated the existence of Law Centres, provided that their areas of specialisation not impinge on the commercial interests of private practice. With the Law Society standard waiver the way forward was open for the Law Centre movement to grow systematically and to institutionalise the co-ordination of Law Centres through the Law Centres Network.
At the time of its establishment in 1978, the Law Centres Federation included 27 Law Centres already in existence. That year the Callaghan government’s Lord Chancellor, Lord Elwyn-Jones, published a set of Guidelines for Law Centres, showing special attention to their unique work and assisting their funding. The whole field of legal services had been under review at the time by Lord Benson’s Royal Commission on Legal Services, which
agreed with the need to re-examine the extent of the provision of legal aid.
The newly established LCF hit the ground running. By the end of 1978 the new Federation began circulating a new internal publication, Law Centres News; this is still going strong, but as an email bulletin. The following year, a Rural Conference on Law Centres was convened as part of the campaigning and development efforts of the new Federation. This work did not go amiss and by the end of 1980 the Federation could boast seven new Law Centres.
Throughout the 1980s, the Law Centres Federation enjoyed numerous achievements. Probably the two most significant ones were the continued expansion of the Law Centres network, reaching sixty centres by 1990; and the success of lobbying efforts in bringing in more funding for the movement, first from the Department of the Environment and
the Greater London Council, and later from the Law Society. Another achievement in
broadening government involvement was the Legal Aid Act 1988, which led to the
establishment of the Legal Aid Board (now the Legal Aid Agency).
In 1984 the Federation moved into the London offices on Warren Street which it was to
inhabit for over two decades. The following year, it set up a short-lived additional office in Birmingham, which was replaced two years later by regional offices in Nottingham and Manchester. However, it was not until another restructuring in 1998 that the Federation first appointed a director. Throughout, Law Centres had to endure recurring reassessments, increased legislation and regulation and ever-multiplying statutory bodies under the Major and Blair governments, which proved challenging to the Federation as the campaigning and lobbying voice of Law Centres.
Nevertheless, LCF continued to campaign, not just for Law Centres but for the advice
sector as a whole. LCF was one of the founding members of the Advice Services
Alliance in 1986. A three-year environment law project at the LCF has been having a
fruitful afterlife since 1994 as the campaigning legal practice EarthRights Solicitors. Most recently, in 2000 the LCF formed a partnership with the Solicitors Pro Bono Group to form LawWorks, which facilitates free professional legal advice.
In 2002, the Federation registered the name ‘Law Centre’ as a trade mark. This was partly in order to secure the identity of individual Law Centres as part of an institutionalised movement. This was also done to ensure that other legal advice providers do not usurp the ‘Law Centre edge’ and its good reputation in the community and in the legal profession.
Overall, the first thirty years of the movement have been years of growth and action, yielding some impressive achievements. Yet there was no time or cause for it to rest
on its laurels, and the times to follow - over a decade of austerity cut, a global financial crisis and a pandemic - turned out to be as daunting as challenges past. Still, the
reward for our efforts is one worth striving towards: it is improved access to legal
services and, through it, social justice in the UK.