The Co-op and legal aid

In 1948, Britain was gripped by post-war austerity. The country was struggling to rebuild its battered fabric. British athletes competing in the Olympic Games were subject to even greater rationing than wartime. Yet, a remarkable thing was happening. Despite the severe economic pressures, politicians and civil servants were putting in place the framework which led to the launch of a national legal aid service the following year.

The service that followed was born in a very different, and possibly less complex world than the one we live in today. However, what was understood was the need for citizens’ rights to be protected and for people to have access to justice.

Globalisation means that the way of life we have taken for granted in the post-war years is under threat, as the shift of economic power to the east takes a firm hold. How each society manages this transition will pose a huge challenge for the future as the old certainties fade away.

I have been a family lawyer all my working life and have witnessed, first hand, the effects on families of everyday stresses. Those pressures of globalisation may seem a world away from the lives of ordinary people. However, their effects are very real. In Britain we have a society where people are more mobile than other European cultures. People generally don’t live in extended families with the support mechanisms that come with that. When economic pressures bite, many of them have no one to turn to. It is almost inevitable that this will spill over into dysfunctional relationships and family breakdown.

The proposed change in scope to legal aid may seem justified in a world where we are all learning to cut our cloth according to our fit. However, much of the blame seems to be directed at the legal system.

‘Lawyers don’t create the legal system.  They operate within it. Their role is to provide people whose lives are in disarray with proper legal advice and support.   Helping them deal with situations which they find challenging and enabling them to rebuild their lives.’

Take away the crutch of legal aid and what happens? Without the support mechanism offered by legal aid many people who desperately need help will, inevitably, be denied access to justice – and that is, potentially, a huge issue for society and social cohesion.

The ethical and social principles upon which the Co-operative was founded in 1844 remain as valid today as they were then. Inevitably, being a mutual makes a huge difference to the way we do business. The social purpose, which is at the core of our principles, distinguishes us from others. Helping people achieve better outcomes for themselves in absolutely key to the way we will deliver our services and is why we are launching a new family law service this summer.

The launch of that service comes at a time of immense change – not only as a result of the proposed changes in scope of legal aid, but also owing to the change in the marketplace for legal services created by the arrival of the first wave of alternative business structures. These two things combined will have a transformational effect on the market.

We see a world, currently, where many people don’t access legal advice for a number of reasons. Our research suggests that a large number of people simply think that ‘lawyers aren’t for us’. Of course that’s a misconception – but it’s one that we, as a profession, have allowed to grow.

We have to ask ourselves why are lawyers seen as remote? What is it about them which makes clients unwilling or fearful of engaging with them?

We need to make the way we deliver our services more accessible and also make them more appealing and relevant to people’s needs. This not only means offering transparent, fixed fees but also promoting a way of doing things which leads to better, less contested outcomes. It involves making the complexities of the law simpler for clients to understand and making advice easier to obtain.

By providing an affordable solution to them we will be helping access to justice and widening the market. People need proper advice so that they can reach solutions which are fair and equitable – ones which are right for everyone That must be good for society and also good for the profession.


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