New Century – New Challenges and Old Themes

In the 21st century, we face new challenges. Bush and Blair’s 'war on terror' resulted in internment, use of evidence obtained by torture, and control orders akin to house arrest. Members of the Society have been professionally engaged in defending the human rights of those caught up in these abuses. The Society works closely with Liberty and the Campaign against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC) in support of civil liberties and fundamental rights. Our members were involved in challenging the legality of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. We are committed to achieving justice and human rights for the Palestinians and several of our members have worked in Palestine for human rights centres.

Our 'Close it Down – Bring them Home' campaign called for the closing of Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp and, joins with Amnesty International and Reprieve, in calling for an end to the abuse of 'extraordinary rendition' and the return to the UK of all prisoners who have ever had rights of residence here.

The old themes will not go away. Every year the government proposes new assaults on the jury system, the rights of defendants in criminal trials and on the rights of refugees. Despite the historic achievements of the Law Centre Movement, today access to justice is shrinking, not expanding and we must campaign to defend legal aid. Young lawyers now face the most daunting challenge in decades in their commitment to provide access to justice for all and the Haldane is active in its support for Young Legal Aid Lawyers.

E P Thompson, whose interest in the eighteenth-century legal system is set out in 'Albion’s Fatal Tree', addressed the Society in 1976. He sent out a call to lawyers which is as relevant now as it was 30 years ago:

"The struggle to change class-bound laws and corrupt or class-bound procedures, and to preserve and extend the real gains of the practical struggles of the past – and indeed to defend not only the trade union and labour movement but also the individual from the new pretensions and resources of state power – remains on the daily agenda. And in this struggle we very much need the skills of radical and Marxist lawyers".

Struggles of the Eighties

The Society threw itself into support for the miners in 1984 – 1985. Members re-located to Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and elsewhere, providing free representation, and becoming familiar figures in the magistrates’ Courts (which frequently sat through the day and the evening).

Members of the Society have consistently campaigned for human rights in Northern Ireland and against internment without trial. Following a mission of inquiry in 1980 we called for the abolition of the Diplock Court system (Diplock and the Assault on Civil Liberties, Haldane Society 1981). We challenged the miscarriages of justice experienced by the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six, Judith Ward and others. Members of the Society were instrumental in calling for a public inquiry into Bloody Sunday and have represented the families and survivors at the Inquiry.

Haldane lawyers provided free legal assistance to ANC and SWAPO members throughout the long years of the struggle against apartheid, and regularly picketed South Africa House. In 1979 the Haldane drafted an emergency telegram – and also secured the respective signatures of the Societies of Conservative, Liberal and Labour Lawyers – appealing to the regime for clemency for Solomon Mahlangu, the ANC freedom fighter. His execution, despite a massive international campaign, heralded a fresh wave of support for the liberation movements

Post WWII: Progress vs. Red-Baiting

In 1945, the Society boasted seven members of the government among its members, including two of its Honourable Vice-Presidents, Sir Stafford Cripps and Clement Attlee. John Platts-Mills had been elected as a Labour MP and D N Pritt as an independent MP. Both rapidly fell out of favour with the Labour government.

The Society threw itself into lobbying for a system of legal aid and the Legal Aid and Advice Act was passed in 1949. 'Law Reform Now' (1947), advocated a comprehensive criminal justice bill, the abolition of capital and corporal punishment, divorce reform and more effective rent restrictions, amongst other proposals.

At the same time, relations between the Labour Party and the Society were becoming more strained. The Labour Party had expelled Sir Stafford Cripps in 1939 (subsequently re-admitting him) and D N Pritt in 1940. The Society rejected the Labour Party’s list of proscribed organisations and continued to allow Communist Party members to join.

In 1948, Platt-Mills was expelled from the Labour Party for sending a congratulatory telegram to Pietro Nenni, the Italian socialist leader who had formed an alliance with the Communists and achieved substantial electoral successes. In December 1948, Gerald Gardiner (later Labour Lord Chancellor 1964 – 1970) tabled a motion to disqualify from Haldane membership anyone "who is a member of a political party other than the Labour Party or of any body membership of which renders him [sic] ineligible for membership of the Labour Party". This was a direct attack on Communist Party members and sympathisers within the Society. The motion was defeated at a highly charged AGM. After a series of split executive meetings, a second motion, restricting membership to members or sympathisers of the Labour Party, was put to a members’ ballot. It received the support of a majority of the membership but not the requisite two-thirds required and so it fell. The anti-Communists walked away, forming the Society of Labour Lawyers, and the Haldane Society withdrew its affiliation to the Labour Party. Ever since, we have remained firmly socialist, but equally committed to independence from any individual political party.

During the 1950s, the Society struggled on, despite being denounced by politicians and in the mainstream press for links to the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and for campaigning against the execution of the Rosenbergs in the US. The IADL was certainly Soviet-dominated at the time and this resulted in a great deal of debate and controversy within the Society itself. The Society also provided legal assistance to anti-colonial struggles, and sent observers to trials abroad. It continued lobbying for law reforms, publishing on rent controls, women’s rights, the legalisation of homosexuality, race discrimination, prisons, legal aid and other topics.

Early Programmes

The early Society rapidly expanded to include solicitors of a more radical persuasion. Its two most prominent office-holders in the 1930s were Stafford Cripps QC (Labour MP since 1931) and D N Pritt QC (elected as a radical Labour MP in 1935). Pritt was commemorated for many years in the Society’s annual D N Pritt Memorial Lecture.

Throughout the 1930s, the Society worked closely with the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty, founded in 1936) and issued a number of progressive legal publications through the Left Book Club (set up by Victor Gollancz). It was affiliated to the Labour Party and its members included Labour Party and Communist Party members.

Records surviving from 1942 show the Society publishing proposals for law reform 'The Law and Reconstruction' covering legal aid, workmen’s compensation, the appointment of magistrates, criminal procedure, divorce, costs of appeals and various other subjects, including very technical proposals (notably "an application of the Admiralty rule of division of loss to cases of motorcar accidents and the like"). There was also a less than critical approach to 'Soviet justice' with a number of publications describing, in approving terms, the Soviet judicial system. Like so many intellectuals of the time, the Haldane Society closed its eyes to the nature of Stalin’s terror.


The Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers was founded in either 1929 or 1930. Early records were destroyed when a Luftwaffe bomb struck the Temple in 1941. Our first fifty years of history are recorded in Wigs and Workers: a History of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers 1930 – 1980 (Nick Blake and Harry Rajak, Haldane Society, 1980).

The Society was named for Viscount Richard Haldane, who, as a Liberal, had been Asquith’s Lord Chancellor from 1912 to 1915, when he was hounded out of office by the then, as ever, xenophobic Daily Mail. He moved leftwards politically, becoming the logical choice as Lord Chancellor when Britain’s first short-lived Labour Government came to power in 1924. By 1929, when Labour was elected again, Haldane himself was dead and Labour Party lawyers were still in very short supply. A small group of barristers formed the Haldane Club to provide legal expertise to the government, trade unions and co-operative movement.

Any chance of high office for early Haldane members evaporated when Ramsay MacDonald split the Labour Party and formed a National Government in 1931. Ever since, the Haldane Society has been a legal thorn in the side of every government, lobbying for law reforms, civil liberties and access to justice for all; supporting national liberation movements against colonialism and campaigning against racism and all forms of discrimination. We have had many distinguished members but judicial appointments and elevations to Queen’s Counsel have been conferred despite, not because of, membership in the Haldane Society.