‘I never tire of the fight. I’m probably the most tenacious person you’ll ever meet.’ So declares Jenny Beck, serial campaigner and access-to-justice evangelist.
Resilience comes with the territory, given what has befallen Beck’s sector in the name of austerity. ‘If you’re campaigning against the backdrop of what we have had to endure, you’d have given up by now if you were not tenacious,’ she adds defiantly.
We meet in London’s Grays Inn Road, from where the chair of the Law Society’s Access to Justice Committee runs Beck Fitzgerald, a niche family firm she set up last year. This launch followed a four-year stint with ABS trailblazer Co-operative Legal Services, where Beck set up a family law practice with another Society stalwart, current vice-president Christina Blacklaws. Earlier still, Beck rose through the ranks at London legal aid mainstay TV Edwards, ending up as managing partner.
Yet she did not come to the law until relatively late, concluding that her zeal for protecting the vulnerable was best deployed as a solicitor. An English literature graduate, she started out in the charity sector, where she campaigned for and set up a local branch of the Child Poverty Action Group.
‘I didn’t have a deep-seated interest in the law per se,’ she recalls. ‘My interest was in protecting the rights of the individual. I’ve got a fundamental, deep-seated belief in fairness. Trying to influence policy and improve accessibility for the most vulnerable people in society was always what I was going to do.’
She adds: ‘I also love making things work properly. That means there is plenty to be getting on with, because in the legal aid and access to justice sphere many things don’t work properly – or indeed at all.’
I hardly need to ask Beck to elaborate. But what does the committee actually do, on a day-to-day basis?
‘Our role is to keep under review and advise on both policy formation and negotiations with the Legal Aid Agency, Ministry of Justice and government,’ she replies. ‘It’s about much more than legal aid. We’ve got many people who are marginalised and disenfranchised, and it is inevitable the most vulnerable end up in that place. We fight against the erection of barriers to justice.’
This work includes the publication of high-profile and prescriptive Law Society reports such as Access Denied? LASPO four years on, published last month. This will often range far beyond legal aid fee and scope cuts to take in courts and tribunal fees, deterioration of the physical estate, emerging advice deserts and the increasing number of people forced to represent themselves.
‘LASPO [Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders 2012] is a complete and utter disaster,’ Beck declares. ‘It has completely failed in the objectives that the government set for it, as identified by the Commons justice select committee.’
To recap, these objectives were to: discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense; target legal aid to those who need it most; make significant savings in the cost of the scheme; and deliver better overall value for money for the taxpayer. In its landmark 2015 report on the impact of Part 1 of LASPO, the committee concluded: ‘Our overall conclusion was that, while it had made significant savings in the cost of the scheme, the ministry had harmed access to justice for some litigants and had not achieved the other three out of four [objectives].’
Chancery Lane has produced 25 recommendations for ministers to ponder when they finally get around to the post-implementation review of LASPO, which was stalled by the general election. Beck has a personal interest in one recommendation in particular: reinstatement of Family Help Level 1 for early advice, which would cost £14m.
‘This is all about empowering people to make sensible legal choices; and they need to know what the choices are,’ she stresses. ‘The £14m it would cost would be more than met by the shortfall in government spending on mediation, which was of course supposed to be the panacea. That saved about £32m.
‘If you diverted some of that money back into early advice, which would feed people back into mediation, a lot more people would be able to resolve their difficulties themselves. We know from various studies that a pound spent at the start of a case can save the government six times as much in the long run.’
With recent governments notably reluctant to dip into the public purse to enhance access to justice, I put it to Beck that the Law Society runs the risk of appearing powerless to mitigate the attrition. But she says this is grossly unfair. Much of the influence the Society wields is manifested in operational matters – and sometimes out of sight, she points out.
‘At a less elevated level, we chip away at the real practical issues that solicitors face every day to try and make their lives easier.
‘So, for example, we’re doing a lot of work on the client and cost management system [the online system for civil and family legal aid providers and others assigned to work on their cases]. And we pore over new civil and criminal contracts with a fine-tooth comb, to make sure they are fit for purpose and work as best they can for practitioners.
‘I hear that many people say “oh, they haven’t changed anything”. But it can be difficult to see at an operational level what we do change. Take the standard civil contract [due imminently]; we have had a lot of influence behind the scenes.’
According to Beck, one serious problem for practitioners is the degree to which the LAA is under-staffed and under-resourced. ‘The regulations we operate by were designed for a different world. In my discipline of family law, LASPO took 80% of cases out of scope. Half of the checks and balances became administratively burdensome, and not effective in any real way.
‘Our committee has been working with the LAA to try and remove some of the hurdles which are now time-consuming and unnecessary, both for practitioners and the agency. Removing them is a win-win. It’s not just about poor rates of pay and administration, it’s about cashflow too. The bureaucracy grinds people down. A lot of that work is invisible, because these are hardly sexy subjects. Our campaigning side is more visible.’
Beck does not lack for potent support. The committee’s members also include: Linda Lee, former Law Society president; Bill Waddington, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association; Cris McCurley, a former Law Society solicitor of the year (private practice); and Steve Hynes, director of access to justice charity Legal Action Group, and former director of the Law Centres Federation.
Education - English literature, Newcastle University; CPA, Guildford; articles at small firm in south-west London
Roles - 1994-2011, family lawyer, partner, managing partner, TV Edwards, London; 2011-2015, launched family law operation of Co-operative Legal Services with Christina Blacklaws, current Law Society vice-president; 2016- set up niche family practice Beck Fitzgerald, Grays Inn, London
Known for - chair, Law Society Access to Justice Committee; chair, ABS and NewLaw Advisory Council; co-chair, Legal Aid Practitioners Group
The question of whether it is simply becoming unviable to practise as a legal aid lawyer came up in a recent Gazette feature on criminal defence (17 July). Private work is essential just to stay afloat, says Beck, who fears for the future of a sector that is no longer able to offer its junior practitioners the prospect of longer-term financial security.
‘Those who want to go into access to justice as a career move – exactly as I did – have to give that some serious thought, because it is extremely difficult to manage,’ she says. ‘Astonishingly, though, there are enough principled young people who have a passion for making a difference to still want to do this.
‘There is no want of passion for the rule of law and for fairness,’ she adds. ‘But what we may find is that it becomes increasingly non-viable for there to be standalone practices that are not supported by another source of private work. I’m one of the rare people to have set up what I wanted to be an access-to-justice firm. The thought of doing that without any privately funded work is impossible.’
We conclude by touching on Beck’s own work, both as a campaigner and a case worker. She has landed a number of accolades, most notably Family Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year and the Law Society Excellence Award for Practice Management.
Of what is she most proud?
‘In family law case work, your “wins” will not often make headlines,’ she reflects. ‘You’re not winning £10m for a spinal or brain injury, for example. It is the sense you get of knowing that people have been heard and their rights have been respected – whether they won or lost, to know they had equality of arms and were able to understand and exercise their rights.’
Much of her time now is spent representing victims of domestic abuse. ‘Two women are killed every week by a partner. That has to stop,’ she adds. ‘It gives me enormous satisfaction to know that we are moving towards a greater recognition of the impact of domestic abuse on families, and the necessity for the correct legal protections to ensure that vulnerable people are looked after properly.’
Jenny Beck and I met before the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on employment tribunal fees. I asked her to comment later: ‘The introduction of tribunal fees in 2013 was another example of the erosion of access to justice for individuals in the name of austerity,’ she said. ‘The fees prevented thousands from exercising their rights to fair treatment. The decision is hugely welcome – access to justice should be a right, not a luxury.’