Lawyers for the Poor: Legal Advice, Voluntary Action and Citizenship in England, 1890-1990


Dr Kate Bradley, University of Kent


Lawyers for the Poor is a project that has a long personal history for me.  In 1999, I began volunteering as an archivist at Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in East London, alongside studying for my MA and working in a bookshop.  Given my daytime commitments, I tended to be at the settlement in the evenings.  I was not the only person who was around in the evenings, as the Free Legal Advice Centre was open then.  I would chat to the organiser and some of the volunteer lawyers, and began to find out what they were doing.  Each evening that the centre was on, advice-seekers would begin queuing up outside at least an hour before the doors opened, patiently waiting to see the lawyers for advice and assistance with their problems, whatever the weather.  Whatever the Centre had to offer, it was clearly valuable to the advice-seekers.

Although I would not begin work in earnest on the history of legal aid and advice for some years after those evenings at Toynbee Hall, I remained curious about the question of how you might get advice on a legal problem if you didn’t have the resources to walk into a solicitors’ office and pay for their services outright.  Not all problems that we face in life need expert advice, of course, but the ones that do need the attention of a lawyer can be complicated and daunting – and can mean going up against adversaries with more power than us.  What I wanted to find out through the project that became Lawyers for the Poor was why and how this legal advice and aid was made available – and the issues with this.

State-funded legal aid is one of the less well-known elements of the welfare state of the 1940s.  It was introduced by the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 in England and Wales, and in Scotland through the Legal Aid and Advice (Scotland) Act 1949 (Northern Ireland had to wait until 1965 for a scheme).  Prior to 1949, there had been some provision for High Court cases through the in forma pauperis procedure, instituted in the twelfth century and requiring barristers to act for free. The Royal Commission on Divorce of 1909 had resulted in ‘Poor Persons’ provision to try to make divorce more accessible, but these were far from perfect for lawyers or litigants. For all other civil matters, trade unionists could gain support on employment law through their union, whilst some people made use of legal aid insurance schemes (which could be of dubious quality).  Others needed to use a ‘Poor Man’s Lawyer’.  Whilst there had long been lawyers who had offered their services for free or at a low cost to people in need, from 1891, Frank Tillyard, a barrister living at Mansfield House University Settlement in East London, set up a ‘Poor Man’s Lawyer’ evening.  Tillyard would offer advice to anyone who came to the settlement with a problem.  This model was replicated by many other settlement houses – including Toynbee Hall later in the 1890s – and spread across the country.  Campaigns to involve the state in funding legal advice took off from the early 1920s, though it took twenty years for them to bear fruit – and, even then, governmental parsimony limited the scope of the scheme.  Following the funding cuts introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, difficulties in accessing legal aid and advice remain.

Exploring this question about accessing legal advice took me further than I initially anticipated.  As we might expect, the Lord Chancellor’s Office and Law Society (the latter the professional group representing solicitors) figured highly as key actors in either resisting or promoting change.  But a far wider range of groups had strong interests in enabling access to lawyers.  Social workers, trade unions, the media, political parties, publishers, and community groups were all involved in delivering legal and other forms of advice to members of the public, often pioneering different methods of allowing people to overcome obstacles of time and physical access to advice services.  In their different ways, these groups all had an understanding or responded to the understanding that states are not always benign, and that not everyone is able to effectively assert their rights against the state, employers, family members, landlords, retailers, neighbours… Whilst the history of legal aid and advice is rightly part of the development of the legal profession from the twentieth century, it is also an important part of understanding citizenship and social inclusion more widely.


Lawyers for the Poor: Legal Advice, Voluntary Action and Citizenship in England, 1890-1990
is published by Manchester University Press

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About the Author: Kate Bradley is a senior lecturer in social history and social policy at the University of Kent. She has worked extensively on the history of social policy in the twentieth century, including the settlement house movement, juvenile courts and juvenile delinquency, and legal advice.

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