THIS WEEK we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Govan Law Centre (GLC). We commissioned the brilliant David Hayman and Shooters production company to make a short film about our clients, people and history which we will unveil this Thursday.
We have live music from Vox Liminis, a Glasgow charity who help people with difficult life experiences express themselves through the arts. Vox liminis means “voice from the threshold”.
For me law centres are essential community assets providing access to justice but moreover campaigning for greater social justice. Anyone can go from stability to insecurity in a heartbeat; from a having a home to becoming homeless.
Our safety nets in society have become tattered. Zero hours contracts have fragmented workers’ security. Universal credit makes individuals and families go without any income for weeks on end. Benefit sanctions are straight out of a Dickensian novel.
I don’t believe that unemployment, poverty, discrimination, poor housing and destitution are accidental. They are the product of political choices. The politics of omission and commission. The last decade of austerity policies in the UK has been a return to the squalor of 1980’s inequality.
The reason we have good or bad laws is because legislation is the manifestation of choice. We have had some really bad choices of late in the UK, and now have the chilling spectre of proposed restrictions on the Human Rights Act and the ability of the courts to enforce the rule of law. There has never been a more important time to stand up for the rights of people who need them most.
Last week was the 40th anniversary of Scotland’s first law centre in Castlemilk. I had volunteered at Castlemilk Law Centre whilst a student at Strathclyde University in the late 80’s and it was a great experience. The first law centre in the UK was North Kensington Law Centre, which opened its doors in 1970 and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of those founding members. The law centre would go on to provide daily support and help to the local community in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster. Neighbourhood law centres grew out of the radical lawyers’ movement in the USA that supported the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
In Glasgow, community law centres have a proud track record in defending eviction actions and pioneering new legal remedies and innovations. GLC provided the drafting for the first member’s bill introduced, and passed, in the Scottish Parliament twenty years ago. A couple of years later we wrote the School Meals (Scotland) Bill.
These were cross-party bills introduced by Tommy Sheridan and supported by the SNP’s Alex Neil and Labour’s John McCallion. They acted as a catalyst for radical reform in the field of debt and money advice, and for free, healthy and nutritious school meals without the stigma of a ticket.
In Govan we pioneered self-help free toolkits. Our first experience was providing bank charge refund letters online in 2004. We set up a website at a cost of £30, and within a year over 1 million letters had been downloaded for free. Someone had taken our free letter templates and was selling them on e-Bay for £10. We took that as a sort of compliment.
The bank charges campaign went viral across the UK in 2005, and the engine room was Govan, powered by consumers from across the UK who helped find different terms and conditions for different years by UK banks, which we needed to lodge in court in contentious cases. The campaign helped get £1.7bn refunded for free to consumers across the UK. We were acting in cases across Scotland and England, working with an English Q.C. and a team of volunteers.
We went on to provide other free toolkits which went viral across the UK including the Payday Loan Survival Guide and the Bedroom Tax toolkit. In 2005, we helped Elaine Smith draft the Breastfeeding (Scotland) Act at a time when mothers were being chucked off buses and thrown out of shops for feeding their weans.
There are too many campaigns to mention but some included fighting for greater rights for homeowners to prevent the repossession of their homes in Scotland after the financial crash of 2008. In 2011, we helped Patricia Ferguson draft the Property Factor (Scotland) Act at a time when any cowboy could be a factor as the sector was completely unregulated. The Evening Times ran a powerful campaign that helped ensure the bill was supported and ultimately passed.
So, here’s to all of Glasgow’s law centres, the volunteers, the staff past and present and the funders who have supported us over the years including Glasgow City Council, the Scottish Government, the Oak Foundation and the Big Lottery to name but a few.