Advertising for access to justice

After the outrage expressed by the Government over the Law Society's recent advertising campaign, Michael Mathews assesses the adverts' impact.

There is no doubt that the Law Society was right to launch the Justice Denied advertising campaign. Despite the reaction of the Lord Chancellor and some media commentators, there was no other way the society and its supporters could have moved the legal aid debate from the law pages and journals to the main news agenda.

The Law Society had a choice – it could allow the legal aid scheme to be quietly dismantled or it could choose to take a principled stand and fight for the rights of clients. It chose the latter.

The legal aid debate had dragged on for over 18 months. The flurry of national publicity after the Lord Chancellor's speech to the Law Society's Cardiff conference in October 1998 had died down. Even though the Access to Justice Bill would have a profound effect on the most disadvantaged people in the country, the debate had become a public policy backwater.

That changed with the adverts, which led to widespread coverage in all the main newspapers and news programmes. The Government, which had been largely untroubled by the media throughout the passage of the Access to Justice Bill, found itself on the defensive, facing a concerted campaign against its proposals.

The Lord Chancellor's angry reaction in itself led to more coverage. Not all of the coverage was positive, with some sections of the media using it as another chance to bash lawyers. But even the bad reports raised the debate's profile and galvanised other organisations to publish their own concerns on the proposals.

The support of groups such as Refuge, Radar, the National Housing Federation and Doreen and Neville Lawrence was key to the advertising campaign's success. Equally important was the support from over 20 other organisations, ranging from the Consumers' Association to the RNIB.

The added impetus the adverts created helped forge this alliance, which will be central to the campaign during the implementation of the proposals and their aftermath.

The society was also right to launch the adverts in the run-up to the Commons Committee stage of the Bill. Not only did this put pressure on the Government during a key stage, but it also put it on the spot over the implementation. This is vital given that there is so little information on how the Government will give effect to the proposals.

The campaign was described by one outside commentator as political suicide. The argument is that the Government will only be nice to us if we make life easy for it. Its move to amend the Bill to take powers to limit how the society can spend practising certificate income, has been cited in support of this argument. But this misses the point.

The adverts were not about the Law Society. Nor were they about legal aid solicitors – although they deserve public sympathy. The adverts were about the ordinary people who will have their access to justice denied if the proposals go through unchanged.

If the Law Society believes access to justice is being threatened it has a duty to say so. The adverts raised the profile of the debate and will make the Government more accountable for the effects of the changes.

The Lord Chancellor responded to our adverts by stating that disadvantaged people will continue to have access to justice and gave clear assurances that the society's concerns have been addressed. The ball is now in his court to make that a reality, and we will be monitoring how the Government delivers on its assurances.

The Law Society will continue to campaign for access to justice and oppose any move to stifle its ability to do so.

Michael Mathews is president of the Law Society.