The Society of Labour Lawyers (“SLL”) welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the Democracy Review as a key part of the Labour Party and the wider Labour movement. SLL values our role and history in the Party and exists to be the legal think tank of the Party, to provide specialist legal advice when called upon and to seek the election of a Labour Party government.
Socialist Societies have been at the heart of the Labour Party and have contributed to the rich history of the Party since its beginning. We believe that one of the benefits of the current structure is that there are not overlapping affiliates covering multiple areas. This allows members and the wider world to know, for example, that the SLL is the voice of Labour Party members in the legal community. This also ensures that the Party knows who to contact in relation to legal issues, policy and advice and is informed in these areas. Of course, members campaign outside of the SLL, but there is strength in an organisation that brings together people working in the legal community for debate and discussion and joint campaigning.
History of the SLL
In 1948 Gerald Gardiner QC was instrumental in forming the SLL, with a membership confined to members of the Labour Party. Some of the early proposals from the Society included the abolition of the QC system, the establishment of Ministry of Justice, to 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 Dr Andrew Martin, Professor at Southampton University, edited ‘Law Reform Now’, published in 1963 where the key proposal was the creation of the Law Commission, which was created in a 1965 Act. The present chair of the Law Commission is a former treasurer of the SLL, Lord Justice David Bean.
Other proposals included widening Legal Aid in criminal cases and an extension of legal aid to tribunal proceedings. Further contributions to the fight for access to justice, were in two pamphlets published by the Fabians (one published in 1968: ‘Legal Services for All’), which argued for 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. 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.
In 2005 we published ‘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, 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’.
More recently we have contributed to 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, and we continue to campaign for the implementation of 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. The SLL has achieved a great deal in its 69 years but we know there is so much more to do and we take responsibility within the Labour Party to ensure that the competing demands on the public purse do not drown out the need for proper Access to Justice.
We are the legal think tank for the Labour Party but that does not just involve theoretical policy development and discussion. Our members have played a vital role in ensuring that expertise in key policy areas has been available to the Party and ensuring that expertise is available to the front bench. We bring together experts and practitioners in areas of policy at the request of the front bench, most recently on issues relating to nationalisation, public procurement and State Aid, to assist in preparing policy for the Manifesto. This type of assistance has proved essential, particularly when in opposition and has allowed the Party to obtain advice and access to experts that would otherwise have come at a huge financial burden.
We have also been instrumental in increasing support for and membership of the Party by reaching out to the legal community and acting as a bridge for the Party to that community. As the Party has grown so have we and this has been helpful in ensuring that our campaigning work continues to grow.
Fundraising and liaising with the Party on fundraising has also been one of our roles, working on the principle of “from each according to their means.”
We note that there are currently five places for socialist societies within the National Policy Forum – three directly elected by the affiliates and two elected by Disability Labour and LGBT Labour respectively to represent those groups.
We submit that each affiliate should be allowed a seat in the NPF to contribute to their relevant policy area or represent their members’ distinct views. The limited number of current representatives means that those elected are trying to represent all the varying groups, which has meant that some affiliates have not had access to the policy making process in a way that would make best use of them. As a result, the Party has been missing out on expertise in the NPF and in the policy commissions in a way that we feel is detrimental to the Party’s policy making process.
As a Society which offers a wealth of policy experience and advice, the SLL would like to have a more formal place within the party policy making structure.
We have many good working relationships with the front bench and have networks in the PLP but these relationships often are dependent on who hold the frontbench role. It would be beneficial to the Party if we could formalise this process and set up processes to make the system work more effectively.
To make best make use of our knowledge and expertise a clear liaison point with the Party would be useful. This would enable better co-ordination with shadow teams and the party’s policy making structure in Parliament.
We have welcomed the big improvements in the way affiliates are involved at conference, particularly the use of the and agreed symbol identifying all fringe meetings run by affiliates, as well as the zoning of affiliates (and other Labour linked groups) in the conference exhibition area to create a common area which makes it easier for delegates to find Party related issues and affiliates.
We often struggle to engage all of the regions, despite efforts to ensure that we are not a London centric organisation. Access to regional conferences varies from region to region including the access available and the costs of getting involved. A more standardised way of ensuring access would be very helpful.
We would also welcome a greater link with regional offices to ensure that we are reaching members and potential members and to be a resource when needed.Representation at regional level and on regional boards could be one way to enable closer involvement.
Better communication with the Party would increase the usefulness of the SLL. The Party sometimes holds events and campaigns, which may be relevant to our members, or where we could make a valuable contribution.If there was a clearer liaison point, we could help publicise and increase attendance and contribute ideas and information on areas in which we have expertise.
Ensuring a clear and easily accessible place for all Socialist Societies on the Party website would also help in terms of ensuring full participation.
The democracy review is an important opportunity to improve the Socialist Societies’ links with the Party and to ensure better use of our expertise. We hope that the outcome is an opportunity to make members of the Party more aware of the SLL and to ensure that we are best able to support the Party and contribute to the election of a Labour Party government using the knowledge and expertise of our members.