Enhancing Democratic Habits: An oral history of the Law Centres movement

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Law Faculty


This project is an in-depth archival analysis and oral history of the development of Law Centres over the past 50 years. It aims to explore the relationship between legal case work, community based strategic litigation, social campaigns and the participation of the citizenry in the civic sphere. We will collect and analyse all the annual reports produced by Law Centres. Life story interview methods will also be employed to gather the personal accounts of Law Centre activists. Using the records and testimony of pioneers and Law Centre workers, we will explore the people who fuelled these changes, the complex internal dynamics of the 'movement' and the ways in which Law Centres challenged conventional legal practice. This research will allow us to reflect on the successes and failures of this form of radical lawyering, including the extent to which the issues it brought to the fore remain live today and the origins of some 'radical' practices that have now been absorbed into mainstream legal practice.

This project brings together a unique interdisciplinary team of socio-legal and community justice scholars, oral historians and civil society partners. It is a collaboration between the Oxford Centre of Socio-Legal Studies and Queens University, Belfast, with the support of the British Library, National Life Stories and the Law Centres Network. The research represents a rare opportunity to consider the influence of Law Centres on the legal and democratic system based on the testimony of those who made it happen. Capturing the views of pioneers of the movement is particularly urgent given the ages of the early pioneers.

The first Law Centres were established in impoverished areas where they acted for those who could not afford to pay for legal services. They dealt with subject areas, such as welfare rights, immigration, housing, discrimination and domestic violence, which had been marginalised in mainstream legal education and practice. Law Centres also acted to achieve broader political and social change through case work, strategic litigation and community based campaigns. They also rejected the established legal profession's claim to neutrality, recognised the expertise of those without legal qualifications and sought to work without workplace hierarchy. The project will provide greater understanding of the contribution that those who worked in Law Centres made to changing conceptions of lawyering.

The proposed work also has much broader scholarly and practical implications. There is considerable contemporary debate about the extent to which mature liberal democracies are seen as relying on institutions run by social and political elites from which the disadvantaged feel remote. This has given rise to widespread debate about the dangers of an emerging 'democratic deficit' in which citizens are increasingly retreating from engaging in public life. By focusing on the stories, motivations and perspectives of pioneers and activists in Law Centres, this research will consider how the engagement of Law Centres with impoverished local communities promoted active citizenship. A key goal of the project will be to explore what can be learnt from the many stories of the movement that could inform current attempts to tackle failures in democracy, access to law, regimes of rights and community 'voice'.

The sound and documentary archives created and curated by the research team will provide a valuable addition to collections of British contemporary life held at the British Library/National Life Stories and by the Law Centres Network. These will provide a rich resource for scholars and members of the public interested in the dynamics and everyday practicalities of grass roots social movements. Expert training and support in oral history skills and archival management provided to Law Centres will also enhance their capacity to curate their own histories at a local level.

Planned Impact

Knowledge exchange and impact plans are at the heart of this project and opportunities to maximise these activities will be facilitated in seven key ways.
1. Involvement of stakeholders in the design and conduct of the research: The Law Centres Network has been involved from the outset in the design and piloting of this research project and have engaged in discussions about practical outputs from the research which will benefit Law Centres. Other practitioners will also become involved through the project Advisory Group. This will facilitate data being collected in a format which they consider to be accessible and which will be of value to staff, volunteers and other stakeholders.
2. Creation of an open access national document archive at the British Library: The curators of permanent collections at the British Library have agreed to create a national repository of annual reports which will be of interest to social, art and visual historians and those interested in the dynamics of communities and campaign activity. The materials will be available for use by community groups, students, researchers and members of the public and used in public exhibitions about community activism, legal and social campaigns and the role of marginalised groups in the legal professions and system.
3. Creation of a National Life Stories (NLS) sound archive at the British Library (BL): The oral history interviews created for this project would form the basis of a new open access archive at the BL. The Library regularly makes use of their sound archive in the production of learning packages and online exhibitions. In 2018 there were 95,362 page views of NLS content online at British Library Sounds, an increase of nearly 30,000 from 2017.
4. Increasing the capacity of local communities to maintain and curate their own archives: The BL will work with the project team in the production of guidance for Law Centres on how to maintain their own archives or deposit them in local libraries and history centres. Hard copies of this guidance will be launched at the annual Law Centres Network conference and made available on the Law Centres Network website.
5. Increasing the capacity of local communities to launch their own oral history projects:
It is a hallmark of oral history that community groups and volunteers regularly engage in charting their own oral history archives. The project team and their partners at NLS will offer three oral history training days to Law Centre staff interested in created a local oral history archive.
6. Use of research outputs in celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the first Law Centre: The Law Centres Network will use data collected during the early stages of the project on Law Centre pioneers in their planned celebrations to mark 50 years of Law Centres. Biographies of interviewees, quotations, case studies, achievements and challenges faced in the early years of the movement will be produced by the project team for use in press releases, celebratory events and social media campaigns. This would raise awareness of the work done by Law Centres and prompt public debate about their role in the legal system.
7. Dissemination of the research to practitioner communities:
The research team will produce an accessible report summarising the results of the project which will be made widely available to the practitioner community and highlighted in social media campaigns using LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. The research team will make themselves available to give presentations at practitioner communities where they can promote the report and will also prepare a series of press releases in conjunction with the Law Centres Network and NLS. The research team will also produce a policy briefing on the lessons to be learnt about provision of legal services for the poor from the research and a report aimed at a non-academic audience


10 25 50