‘Legal Aid Is Only Part of the Answer’:  an interview with Amanda Finlay 

After a career in what is now the Ministry of Justice, Amanda Finlay CBE has been involved in a number of not for profit organisations concerned with access to justice and, in particular, the assistance of litigants in person (self-represented litigants). She is chair of the public legal education charity Law for Life. Her career underlines the continuity of themes in the policy of delivering effective legal aid – both before and after the recent expansion of technology.

Why did you join the civil service?

I went to Newnham, Cambridge to read English and graduated in1971. Apart from the arts and academe, the career opportunities for women seemed to focus on marketing and human resources. The only two employers who were recruiting more widely at that point were the Co-op and the Civil Service. I attended a  familiarisation day at the Department of the Environment and met some fascinating women and men whom I subsequently realised were all rising stars.The event and those individuals did their job and inspired me to join the Civil Service. My father’s attempts to persuade me to follow him as a barrister foundered because his high-powered Chancery chambers (all male and two future Law Lords) were just too intellectually intimidating.

I went to the Lord Chancellor’s Department (LCD) to work for Derek Oulton who later became permanent secretary. I was one of the first entrants who was not a lawyer. I worked as part of a team implementing the Courts Act 1971. This unified an array of historically different and autonomous criminal courts into one Crown Court. It required fast moving organisation and rapid response to problems, with fortnightly meetings of the new Circuit Administrators, a legal team liaising with court business officers in the new Circuit offices and a small secretariat – me.  This was project management on a complex scale using pen and paper, a typing pool, ticker tape and the telephone. It was a really interesting lesson in making things happen quickly and efficiently, including how to resolve problems. I learnt a lot from it.

You were in the department as a more coherent legal aid policy began to develop?

Yes. In the early 1970s, there was growing criticism of how legal aid was operating. Richard White, a founder of the Legal Action Group (LAG) and an academic at Birmingham University, was part of this movement. Derek Oulton persuaded him and Cyril Glasser, another LAG founder and a solicitor, to join the department as consultants looking at legal aid and unmet need but their report was never published. Its recommendations were wide ranging and pragmatic – maximising current resources with better national and local responsibility and planning;  more integration with community services; acceptance that limited resources could not help everyone and that self-help should be positively facilitated.  Above all, more focus on social welfare law. I headed their very small support team. We worked with the Urban Deprivation Unit of the Home Office selecting key indicators of intense legal need: overcrowded housing, shared toilets and unemployment – many still relevant  today. The report set out a comprehensive plan for boosting legal services in deprived communities and, in the second half of the 1970s, the LCD took over funding some existing law centres in deprived areas which had begun on other funding.

Of course, later on we had Professor Dame Hazel Genn’s groundbreaking work on unmet legal need, which I have referred to throughout my working life.

This time allowed me to meet so many people working in the field. It allowed me to see how the law centre model worked. Just doing casework was not enough. They had to undertake outreach, education, media, campaigning. Otherwise, you could not resolve problems on the scale required. That is still worth remembering. Assistance is not just casework. It is a whole spectrum of interventions and starts early in helping people recognise and frame their problem and then seek help.

You then took a break?

Yes. I left the department initially for maternity leave and then to move to Brussels with my husband. When I returned, after two sons and six years, the department had hardly changed. 

I became Secretary to the Legal Aid Advisory Committee. We held regular legal services conferences bringing together a wide range of people: advice and community workers, lawyers and judges, academics – incredibly valuable in establishing new connections. Nowadays, the Litigant in Person Network reproduces some of that with the help of digital communication and Civil Justice Council annual conferences. These early conferences demonstrated the benefits of local collaboration and national expertise made available at grassroots level

I then had an enforced break of two years with viral pericarditis which flattened me physically and mentally. It was a salutary lesson for someone who had relied on her health, mind and memory to discover that they no longer worked. It taught me a lot about how difficult it can be to do the simplest things that we all take for granted. I was very lucky eventually to recover and to return to work, at first very part time, and frankly not as much use, until my brain at last got back into gear. I mention this experience because it was formative for me and because it is being replicated all around us by people suffering from the impact of long Covid. 

This time, when I went back to the Department, everything had changed. There were personal computers – that was a significant challenge for me at first. I worked on rights of audience, and then on legal aid and did a rapid review of potential areas of spending for the department. I moved on to be joint secretary of Lord Woolf’s Inquiry on civil justice reform which culminated in his Access to Justice Reports to which I brought the perspective of a non-lawyer. 

Richard Susskind became the inquiry’s IT consultant. This sparked my continuing interest in how technology could improve things in the justice realm. During consultation, we aimed to meet a wide range of people – including lawyers, advisers and also litigants in person. We held six regional conferences, advertised on local radio. To my consternation, all the speakers – as originally arranged – were male. I persuaded Lord Woolf to add a female rapporteur for each session, whom I selected, and the final session of the day was an all female line up. It just hadn’t occurred to anyone in the mid mid-1990s that gender was an issue. All credit to Lord Woolf. It was wonderful to work with someone who had both a strong vision of his own but was able to take on board contributions from others.

Where did your career take you after that?

I had a number of roles including scoping the impact of the Human Rights Act on the courts, working on the Bill and implementation, with JUSTICE, Liberty and many human rights lawyers. We staged several all-day walkthroughs with judges, lawyers, and other court participants to identify necessary changes to avoid ‘chaos in the courts’. Then I worked on changes to public and private family justice and administrative justice, in particular, working with the Home Office in 2000 on a joint programme with a single budget  to speed up asylum decisions and appeals. This was a massive challenge and I was grateful to all the asylum lawyers who worked with us on how to do this justly for claimants. I pitched the possibility of the Ministry of Justice taking responsibility for all tribunals at my promotion interview after the HRA. The then Permanent Secretary thought it a good idea and it led to Lord Justice Leggatt’s influential report Tribunals for Users and eventually the unified Tribunal Service. Good things can take a long time to come to fruition.

And what was next?

I took over policy responsibility for legal aid at the time of a fundamental review imposed by the  Treasury who thought that legal aid was a basket case – always over or underspending.  My team worked hard to help the review team understand how legal aid worked and the difference it made. A priority was understanding users’ needs and getting a grip on expenditure through graduated and standard fees negotiated with the profession. The legal aid budget at that time was a black box : a mystery carefully cultivated by the Legal Services Commission. Work focused on understanding how need and fee schemes interacted with other drivers in the justice system.Improved forecasting and control helped us to  fight off further cuts at that stage and to preserve the sadly diminished budget for social welfare law 

And you retired just in time?

Yes. I retired in May 2009. I was 60 – born in the same year as legal aid. Until 2008, I thought that scope was quite good and legal aid just holding its own – though it might not have seemed like that to practitioners. It was painfully obvious, however, that there would be cuts as a result of the financial crisis. We had hoped at least to preserve social welfare law because it was so important to help the poorest. It was, however, part of the draconian cuts after I retired.

I wanted to go on working on access to justice issues and was pleased to be appointed briefly to the Civil Justice Council and as a Trustee of Law Works, and, thanks to you, as a Council member of JUSTICE – their first non-lawyer member. 

I was vice chair ofthe independent Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support. Its recommendations remain very pertinent. It called for a cross-departmental budget for social welfare law and argued that courts should transform themselves to accommodate litigants in person.  

Lord Briggs’ official review of the Chancery Division, and then of Civil Justice generally, reached very similar conclusions. He referenced recommendations of the Low Commission, the Civil Justice Council Report on LIPS, and a JUSTICE working group on access to justice – all of which I had been privileged to work on. They recommended a different role for the court: taking a more proactive role, no longer expecting litigants in person to know the law, the procedure and the rules of the game.  In addition, these reports suggested web-based information and guidance with links to advice and legal aid. This was more about changing the system as a whole rather than making one big technological jump.

I went on the board of Law for Life in 2012  and became chair in 2016, I have always regarded public legal education and information as a crucial component of  access to justice and that approach is needed now more than ever. Law for Life was pleased to take on the website Advicenow in 2013. It works brilliantly for people who are digitally capable to help themselves and to help others less capable: their family, friends and clients in health and community settings. As an online source of information, it integrates with our education and training work for individuals and trusted intermediaries. It is incredibly important to reach the most vulnerable through the community organisations that already support them. We have seen this over the last few months in our remote housing courses for community activists on Advicenow: much valued and hugely oversubscribed. The power of technology in the most challenging times.

As a result of this and of chairing JUSTICE’s Working Group on Preventing Digital Exclusion from Online Justice, I became a member of the HMCTS Litigants in Person Engagement Group (LIPEG) for the Online Court. It is a privilege to help Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service grapple with Government Digital Service requirements on websites and seek to be agile in dealing with a subject so complex, impenetrable and scary for most people. The JUSTICE Working Group, Law for Life and LIPEG have emphasised the need for  independent information and guidance and signposting to relevant advice – as recommended by Lord Briggs. Neither lawyers nor ordinary people in focus groups fully grasp how important this is as the lawyers know everything  and the first-time user doesn’t know what they don’t know. But the advice sector understands how necessary it is to have comprehensible guidance from independent sources which can cover the issues in more detail. and in a more supportive tone than Government can. That is just what AdvicenNow specialises in:building confidence, giving people the skills and knowledge they need. The easy bit is the knowledge bit. The hard bit is the skills and confidence  

The LASPO cuts to legal aid were too deep and need to be reversed but legal aid is only part of the answer. We need to see the Briggs vision of the Online Court  and we must develop a legal ecosystem at national and local levels which uses every part of the system as effectively as possible. It should support and build knowledge, skills and confidence in citizens generally, and crucially in grassroots organisations because they are in the greatest contact with those in greatest need. That remains as true now as it was in the 1970s when I started out in what was then the Lord Chancellor’s Department.

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