Even after four decades of practice, Patrick Allen still believes the law is an instrument for social justice
The average lawyer will experience many ups and downs throughout their time in the profession. While the soaring highs will hopefully outnumber the extreme lows,it is the latter that will often remain more vividly etched in the memories of those that practise law. Occasionally, some traumas will leave deeper scars and Patrick Allen, who many have described as a titan among personal injury practitioners, knows that better than most.
In a glittering career that has spanned four decades and been acclaimed by many, Allen’s worst moment in practice came fairly recently. In March 2013 he happened to read an article in The Times newspapercriticising an advertisement from his law firm which offered help and advice to claimants of the Magdalene Laundries scandal.
The Times had reported on a statement made by the Irish government, which suggested that well-known firm Hodge Jones & Allen (HJA) had falsely claimed in its advertisement to have drafted government proposals for a scheme that would pay compensation to victims of the Catholic-run workhouses. These victims included thousands of women and girls forced into unpaid, manual labour.
“We had been advising Laundry clients since about 2002,” says Allen. “The Irish government refused to include them in the new Redress Board scheme and our letters of claim, sent to the Irish government between 2006 and 2008, were rebuffed. We helped the main action group, Justice for Magdalene, who had drafted a scheme, and at their request sent the Irish minister of justice proposals for compensation in 2011.
“The government finally acknowledged responsibility for the laundries in 2013, under pressure from the United Nations and agreed to set up a scheme. The idea that we were misleading clients rather than helping to correct an historic injustice was preposterous.”
The firm threatened The Times with libel proceedings following its publication of the offending article. The newspaper subsequently apologised for the story, removed all traces of it from its website and published a clarification, which confirmed Allen’s involvement in submitting proposals on the compensation scheme. In addition, the paper paid the firm an undisclosed sum in damages, which Allen donated to a Magdalene Laundries charity.
Though the apology, which was delivered in April and acknowledgement that Allen and his firm had campaigned for many years to obtain justice for the victims pro bono, the whole incident still seems to grate on the man who has been described in the legal press as a ‘Senior Statesman’ of the profession. This is hardly surprising when you consider the reasons why Allen first entered the world of law and why he continues to practise to this day.
“It is passion, and it comes from inside the sort of people that we are,” he explains. “Basically we are social reformers, left liberals. We want to make people’s lives better. I had a moment when it all came clear to me that the law was a great vehicle for doing that; it was really practical.
“People face very big obstacles and very big opponents, which make their lives miserable – central government, local government, insurers, police – the law is a tool that can really make a difference. I saw it as a brilliant practical way of achieving social justice and social reform.”
From such humble beginnings and good intentions, HJA was born. Allen, who has been running the firm as managing partner since day one in September 1977, explains how his firm set out to do just one thing: use the law as a device to help others. “We definitely weren’t here to make money,” he admits. “We hoped the firm would prosper and we’d be okay, but you don’t go into legal aid work to make lots of money, and obviously lots of firms don’t go into legal aid specifically because they would not expect to make any money.”
Allen was joined in his pursuit of social reform by Peter Jones, now a professor and senior pro-vice chancellor at Nottingham Trent University, and the late Henry Hodge. Reminiscing about his early career naturally brings back fond memories of Allen’s close friend, Henry. The pair came from very similar backgrounds and shared many of the same outlooks on life, politics and how the law could be used as an instrument to effect change.
“He was a member of the Labour party, he’d been a candidate in a by-election, he was a councillor, so we had this clear ethos and we kept it going,” says Allen. “That’s why we’re here, you know, to right wrongs. It sounds a bit cheesy sometimes but that’s what we do.”
The relationship between Hodge and Allen could, in modern parlance, be described as something of a‘bromance’. Opening their firm’s original office doors in Camden Town, the pair of radical lawyersspecialised in championing causes which other practitioners might have flinched from, such as WinstonSilcott, jailed for the murder of PC Keith Blakelock in the 1985 Broadwater Farm; the Bridgewater Four; as well as the victims of the Marchioness ferry disaster and the King’s Cross fire.
Hodge died of acute myeloid leukaemia on 18 June 2009 and his loss is still keenly felt by Allen. “Obviously I miss him,” he chokes, visibly saddened at the thought of what he and the legal profession lost five short years ago. “He was one of my best friends and the best man at my wedding, we used to go to Arsenal together. He was almost too good to be true.”
Hodge is described by Allen as jolly and funny, a big drinker and life and soul of the party. “He used to dance, very awkwardly but very vigorously,” recalls Allen with a smile. “He was just fantastic fun but also fearless and a very good PR man for the firm. He was always out there doing interesting things, which really helped the firm. But I always knew he was going to go off and do something outside eventually.”
It therefore came as little surprise to Allen when Hodge retired from the firm in 1998, before becoming only the third non-barrister to be appointed a High Court judge in 1999. The roles of managing and senior partner were subsequently combined by Allen as he was left to run the firm, effectively solo, for the next 15 years. Although, as Allen would tell it, this was not a new experience for him: “I was always running the firm when Hodge was here, because he wasn’t much for the managing partner role. But, yes, I miss him hugely. I still spend a lot of time with his family and the Arsenal tickets have carried on.”
Access to justice
The firm has gone through many changes since those heady days in the late 1970s when the focus was purely on the righting of wrongs and making ends meet. HJA has become far more corporate, as one might expect from a firm of its increased size and expertise. But while HJA has moved away from the high street to more modern premises able to accommodate its now 200 employees, near Euston station, it retains its reputation as being a firm for local people.
“We don’t have any branch offices, that has always been a firm policy,” says Allen. “We’ve always been able to market ourselves in more than one role – we have always been Camden solicitors to Camden people, but we’ve always had a wider reputation, which has turned into a national reputation, and we’ve always been involved in high-profile cases.”
Yet the firm’s involvement in noteworthy cases, such as the Gulf War illness claims for UK veterans or theMMR and Sheep Dip multi-party actions, could conceivably have been put at risk, along with many other firms across the country, by recent changes to legal aid.
Allen argues that the introduction of LASPO and the “effective abolition of the legal aid scheme”, coupled with the Jackson reforms, has cut off access to justice for millions of people: “One thing that really matters for me is that in this great project of using the law constructively you’ve got to have access to the courts. If you can’t, you can’t exercise your rights. We all have equal rights under the law, civil and criminal, and we ought to be able to exercise those rights, but now people can’t. That is a disgrace, and I feel really passionate about it.”
While accepting the Labour party did not exactly have a great record on legal issues during the last administration, Allen describes the current government as a disaster. “All right-wing politics and the politics of austerity, which I detest,” he dismisses. “I’m actually working quite hard with the Labouropposition in trying to help their presentation of an economic policy to counter austerity economics.”
In addition, Allen firmly believes in the importance of a Lord Chancellor who understands the legal system. “It has been a disaster, Grayling as Lord Chancellor. You don’t want just another politician doing that job,” he pleads. “It’s a special job that upholds the vital traditions of the law, the courts, the judges and the profession.”
“Politicians are generally not well disposed towards the law,” he continues. “They don’t understand the constitutional set up, that the law and the judges are separate from them, the executive. They’re constantly annoyed by judges interfering with government decisions, but that’s the system, isn’t it? That’s why it’s a good system with checks and balances. They don’t get it, but Labour didn’t either. Blunkett was always livid with judges.”
While the firm’s commitment to social justice remains the same, Allen admits that certain internal workings of the firm have changed, such as the management structure. “What worked for me for 37 years wasn’t sustainable going forward for the next 37.”
As a result of this realisation, HJA now has a board of directors, with Allen as chair, as the process of devolving power and responsibility to the next generation of leaders at the firm begins.
“The board meets once a month,” advises Allen. “The legal directors have been given training and help in setting up budgets, they’ve been given key performance indicators (KPIs), and we produce very detailed papers in advance of the meetings showing the monthly performance of each of the five units and measure that against the KPIs.”
Even though the existence of a quasi-board of directors is proof the firm is moving in a more corporate direction, Allen argues that HJA retains its uniqueness. “There are not many firms that have our ethos and not many that have survived,” he says. “The other thing that’s different about us is the financial acumen that has made the firm stable and successful in operating within that ethos, because a lot of firms that have done this stuff are not successful or are closing now, whereas we are going from strength to strength.”
This strength has made the firm hugely attractive to potential employees: “People really want to come and work here,” says Allen. “We get 400 applicants for nine traineeships, and then everybody else is applying for paralegal roles just to get some experience. I recently read that people actually want the organisationthey work for to have some purpose that they identify, people don’t want to just go to work and do stuff, they actually want to believe in the firm. For most people work is just a drudge and they can’t wait to retire.”
So with Allen conceivably starting the process of winding down his leadership of the firm, is retirement actually on the cards? “The board is a constructive way of me stepping back,” he answers. “That’s starting the process, sharing responsibilities and giving the firm a structure which can operate without me. That’s the beginnings of a great succession plan that wasn’t in place a year ago. It’s a huge step forward, but, in a sense, why would I want to go away?”
This feature article was first published in Solicitors Journal on 20 January 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission