At the crossroads of justice

Alison Laferla talks to the influential players in the Legal Action Group's history – and its future. Alison Laferla is a freelance journalist.

An intellectual powerhouse behind the radicals – that's how I want the LAG to be seen.” Roger Smith, director of the Legal Action Group, is proud of the organisation and ambitious for its future.

Others are amazed at how the group, which was set up 25 years ago with lots of good intentions and very little money, has flourished to become a well-respected think-tank and training provider.

The LAG was formed in 1972 by four lawyers – Andrew Phillips, Cyril Glasser, Simon Hillyard and Richard White – who wanted to see greater provision of legal services for those without means. The group set out to educate solicitors about social welfare law and to monitor the delivery of legal services around the country.

It was headed by Susan Marsden, formerly of the Nuffield Foundation, with Jean Dyer as her secretary and “general dogsbody”.

Once it moved out of the foundation's property in Reg-ent's park, London, the LAG's first office in Highgate Road was a former cafe. “It was pretty seedy and a complete comedown,” laughs Dyer. “We had no equipment of our own, just a manual typewriter lent to us by the foundation, which sounded like a machine gun going off.”

The LAG, a small but steadily growing organisation, became the first group to offer training courses. In 1974 it began publishing books and was instrumental in setting up the Royal Commission on Legal Services under Sir Henry Benson in 1977.

One day Benson visited LAG's office, turning up in a Rolls Royce. As introductions to the group were being made, one member of staff put a half-lit pipe into his pocket and promptly set himself on fire. Benson was not amused. But, says Dyer, that sort of thing happened all the time in those days.

In its early years, the LAG confined itself to campaigning only on procedural matters and not on substantive law. But the arrival of two new directors, Jenny Levine and Ole Hansen in 1978 changed this and the group became more confrontational, appearing on television, successfully campaigning for changes to the Law Society complaints procedure and doing much to raise its public profile.

Staff were enthused by an exciting atmosphere of pioneering change and everyone chipped in to do whatever was needed, recalls Dyer.

Roger Smith took over as director of the LAG in 1986, having previously worked for the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG). “I had a pretty clear view of what I was going to do at the LAG,” he says. “I wanted to make it financially secure and to develop the policy side of it.

“My model of a pressure group, which was very much influenced by the CPAG, was politically closer to a think-tank than a campaigning organisation. I felt that legal areas had been under-researched and under-analysed and that the LAG had a real contribution to make in terms of increasing the quality of that research.”

Smith says the LAG is now financially secure and is operating as a successful commercial enterprise. “It is a combination of a not-for-profit organisation, a think-tank whose views are respected and an efficient education and information operation which survives in a contested marketplace on the merits of its material,” he explains.

The LAG is also unusual because its objective – promoting equal access to justice for all – encompasses both private practice and the advice sector. As such, it bridges gaps between the two, whose agendas and interests often conflict.

“The LAG argues for the poor through the voice of those who act for them and so we have a distinctive political voice,” says Smith.

“We do strive for proper appreciation of lawyers, but the LAG is not a mouthpiece for private practice in the way that the Law Society quite rightly is.”

The LAG, a registered charity, is officially non-political, although many people think of it as leaning to the left. Its committee is made up of academics, private practitioners and people from the voluntary sector. Or, as Smith somewhat romantically puts it: “The LAG stands at a crossroads leading to different worlds – international, academic and political.”

The LAG is also branching out on the Internet with a discussion forum for people throughout the world who share the same interests as the group.

The project will swallow up some of the group's carefully managed resources. Only when it has been paid for will the LAG try to finance a move out of its small offices in King's Cross. Looking to the future, Smith says: “What I hope for the next 25 years is that we can continue to build a constituency of people who are interested and committed to providing legal services to the poor, hold them together and give them a voice to be heard politically.”