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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. 

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.