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25 November 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 2:06pm

Legal aid cuts have been disastrous for the poor

It's time for a rethink. 

By Richard Burgon

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.

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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.

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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.