The unsung superhero of equality

Vicki Chapman

Elizabeth Davidson meets Vicki Chapman, the Clark Kent of UK law who champions LAG's war against inequality.

Look around at any conference or debate that touches on access to justice and it is a fair bet you will see Vicki Chapman among the delegates. The newly-promoted policy director at the Legal Action Group (LAG) has a brief to expose inequality in the law in order to pursue a fair deal for all. In short, she is the UK's Clark Kent of law.

Political lobbyist, contemporary events analyst and equality champion, the down-to-earth Chapman bangs the drum for LAG. And if the organisation's profile is anything to go by, she is making a pretty good job of it too.

Lawyers cannot help but be familiar with LAG. A self-financing education charity that began life as a newsletter in 1972, the group is frequently and authoritatively quoted in the press and is consulted and listened to by government. It is almost impossible to find anyone who has a bad word to say about it.

That is unusual for an organisation which is often critical of others. Law Society spokesman David McNeill describes LAG as a "small" group which "punches above its weight… and pulls no punches". He adds: "It has not given into the temptation to be critical for controversy's sake, but has a reputation for quality research and a sensible but principled approach."

LAG's offices are surprisingly inauspicious for such a high-profile group – some cluttered rooms on London's Pentonville Road above The Poor School drama college, from which screams emanate while the 11 LAG staff pore over draft legislation. It is in these offices, cluttered with books, papers and studious-looking paraphernalia, that law reform begins. And somehow the staff find time to produce Legal Action magazine, run Law Society and Bar Council accredited courses for lawyers and advise workers and comment on policy issues. It is the magazine and courses that pull in the income.

Chapman has been the de facto head of the group since July, when its director Roger Smith – a well-known legal commentator and author – left to head-up the Law Society's legal education and conduct department.

Surprisingly, Smith's job attracted few applicants when it was advertised. The reason, believes Chapman, is because he had created an "impossible job" that covered both business development and policy analysis. He also left a legacy of LAG catchphrases – Chapman says she knows she has assumed his mantle when, like him, she states that she "worries in the bath" about legal issues.

LAG has readvertised but now seeks a "chief executive" to lead LAG and handle its business side, leaving Chapman to fill Smith's policy making shoes by moving from "head of policy" to "policy director". The main difference, says Chapman, is that she has a "heavier workload".

Smith is a tough act to follow but outsiders tip Chapman to do well, partly because of her enthusiasm. Jane Hickman, senior partner at Hickman & Rose and a former workmate of Chapman at Fisher Meredith, points to her as "inspiring" and "able to bring out the best in people". She adds: "Intellectual fireworks and an amiable character are an unusual mix."

Chapman's fight against injustice is not only driven by the fact that she "loves the job and really enjoys the law".

Her background is steeped in LAG's values. Her feminist mother, who used to complain if Chapman's school sent letters that referred to children as "he", ensured Chapman was aware of inequality between the sexes from an early age.

Her mother's stance seems to have set the tone for Chapman's career. After a degree in European thought and literature at Cambridge College of Arts and Technology, she tackled the CPE at the College of Law, London, and trained as a solicitor at commercial firm Phillips & Buck in Cardiff (now Eversheds) – an experience she claims stood her in good stead because "commercial firms can afford to train you properly". But a City firm did not appeal – Chapman stands firm that she is not money-conscious.

Her career thereafter is a catalogue of worthy causes. She moved to London to work for well-known legal aid firm Fisher Meredith, volunteering at the Central London Law Centre at weekends, before going to the Low Pay Unit as a solicitor and then the Child Poverty Action Group for five years.

There, she gained a taste for high-profile campaigning work and took two cases to the European Court of Justice – one over whether disability benefit is exportable throughout EU countries, and one over a discriminatory invalidity benefit rule. She won on both counts. Her next job was at the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux, where she was policy officer. Then, two years ago, she joined LAG.

Chapman's no-compromise effort in fighting for her beliefs has paid dividends. She has seen several LAG successes, including a campaign the group spearheaded to maintain a legally qualified person on social security tribunals and a victory in extending the exemption from court fees to people claiming family credit, disability working allowance and jobseekers' allowance.

The lack of public subsidy for representation at tribunals, "where most low-income people appear", and where "the opponent is usually either the state or an employer" is Chapman's present bugbear. She also believes the formality of the legal process is a barrier to access; lawyers speak in a "legal language" that the lay person finds difficult to understand, she argues. Then there is the issue of cost. Chapman wants legal access to open up enough for the public to see it as a way of improving lives, not a profession priced out of reach.

Chapman is now a member of the Civil Justice Council – the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine's influential 21-member advisory body of judges, civil servants, lawyers and representatives from the lay advice, consumer affairs and business sectors. Her membership is both an indication of the esteem in which she is held and an opportunity for her to influence policy. Although still in its fledgling stages, the council boasts a prestigious membership, including Master of the Rolls Lord Woolf and Vice-Chancellor Sir Richard Scott, and its views are likely to hold more sway in government circles than the Law Society or consumer groups.

Chapman freely admits to being a "law anorak" – she says she reads Hansard "for fun" and obsessively follows legal issues. What that self-deprecating claim hides is her likable personality. She is full of amusing stories and gifted at making the complicated seem simple, an essential ability in her job.

She also has adventurer's blood and travels to obscure corners of the world. Last year she spent a month up the Amazon, the year before a month in Australia, and this year she travelled through Lebanon and Israel. As a youth she spent 18 months travelling – taking in the Middle East, Mongolia, Iran, China and Northern Asia – and her office exhibits memorabilia of her nomadic tendencies, involving a penchant for carved parrots.

In an ideal world, Chapman would make a fine politician, but she says she is too independent to play party politics. She says she "can't imagine doing anything apart from LAG", because she "enjoys dealing with people, thinking on her feet, dealing with the media and thinking about parliamentary and legal policy". But, she concedes, academia might tempt her. Then again, she might just follow her ultimate ambition – to travel up the west coast of the Americas from Chile to Alaska.