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Legal aid cuts have been disastrous for the poor

It's time for a rethink. 

In the Autumn of 2015, newly-elected Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn asked Lord Bach to carry out a review of the legal aid system. Lord Bach then widened his work to a review of access to justice more generally, given concern across the legal profession that people are being priced out of justice. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, himself commented earlier this year that "our system of justice has become unaffordable to most". 

Since 2010, the Conservatives – initially aided and abetted by the Liberal Democrats - have implemented unprecedented cuts to legal aid. In 2012, the Coalition passed legislation which did away with legal aid for social welfare cases - community care, debt, employment, housing and welfare benefits. This meant vast numbers of people would no longer be able to get legal advice and assistance if they could not afford representation. 

The figures are indisputable. In 2012-13 – prior to the implementation of Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act - 724,243 civil law cases were funded by legal aid. In 2015-16, that fell to just 258,460 cases. This shows the sheer scale of the denial of access to justice. At the time of its changes, the government promised to review the effect of these cuts within three to five years. That review is not even started, despite reports by Amnesty International and the Trade Unions Congress this year highlighting the ongoing injustices Conservative cuts have caused. 

Further cuts to criminal legal aid fees have forced some solicitors out of business. The introduction of Employment Tribunal fees has seen a 70 per cent reduction in cases. That's not a figure which can be honestly explained away as a reduction in meritless claims. And many capable young lawyers are leaving the profession, just as many are being put off from entering the profession in the first place by the debt attempting to do so can incur. 

It was Clement Attlee’s Labour government that passed the Legal Aid and Advice Act of 1949. The legislation itself was influenced by the work of the Rushcliffe Committee. The committee produced a report on "legal aid and legal advice in England and Wales" and had been asked "to enquire what facilities at present exist in England and Wales for giving legal advice and assistance to poor persons". In the event, the committee recommended that assistance should be more widely available for ordinary people.

It was under Attlee that legal aid became the "fourth pillar of the welfare state". Unfortunately, the Conservatives have taken us back to the time before the Attlee government. I have great hope, therefore, that Lord Bach’s commission has the same potential as the Rushcliffe report - the potential to change the landscape of access to justice in England and Wales.

Lord Bach has gathered a committee of independent experts to guide and inform the work, including my colleague Christina Rees MP. Many more lawyers’ groups, charities and interested parties have contributed in writing to the project. The Interim Report sets out the Commission’s plans to draft proposals including a minimum standard for access to justice, the reform of legal aid and increasing access to legal advice. There is also much of substance elsewhere in the report, which will be welcome to all those who value the principle of access to justice.

I am particularly excited by the idea of enshrining in law a minimum standard for access to justice. At present the Lord Chancellor is required only "to ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts". A basic threshold for access to justice has the potential to be a historic advance in our law which could improve the lives of thousands.

The Bach Commission’s findings will inform Labour's justice policy as we look ahead to a General Election in 2020 or before. It is a major piece of work which will be finished in time for the Labour party Conference next September. We are determined that the Labour party will extend access to justice and provide legal assistance to all those who need it, regardless of their ability to pay.

The crisis in the justice system in England & Wales is the interim report by the Bach Commission on Access to Justice and is published today by the Fabian Society. In order to continue its valuable work and identify solutions to the crisis in the justice system, the Commission is crowdsourcing funds for its second phase.

Richard Burgon is the MP for Leeds East and shadow secretary for justice. 

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.