Lord Bach: Labour helped erode consensus on legal aid

Topics: Legal aid and access to justice,Government & politics

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The last Labour government helped to erode the ‘broad consensus’ about the need for legal aid and access to justice, a former Labour justice minister admitted today. 

At a conference on access to justice, Lord Bach (Willy Bach) said that while the destruction of the consensus primarily happened under the coalition, the last Labour administration had contributed to the process.  

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'A broad consensus used to exist around access to justice and legal aid, which has now gone. I don't say the last Labour government hasn't had something to with that. But the real destruction has been under the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in the coalition.'

Bach (pictured), who is leading Labour’s review of the government’s legal aid reforms, said that he hoped this review would ultimately look to reinstate the consensus. ‘It will be difficult to restore but we must try,’ he said.

Outlining the scope of the review, Bach said it would develop a critical and cogent policy for the Labour party, develop an analysis of what has gone so wrong over the last few years, bring the issue to the public’s attention, and achieve some change from the government in power.

He said: ‘We need not to be afraid of looking at things in a new light. We need to look hard at the use of technology and its proper role in access to justice […] we need to discuss and look at the relationship with the pro bono movement […] and we need to discus: who should legal aid help? Should it just be for the poorest in society or should we aim higher than that?’

Bach warned that although the current lord chancellor Michael Gove has reversed many of his predecessor Chris Grayling’s policies, there is not much evidence that there has been a change of heart on legal aid.

He said: ‘We might have seen a change of heart if there had been an early review of part one of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act but there hasn’t been.’

But he said that Jeremy Corbyn is the first leader of a major party in years to really understand legal aid and its relationship to access to justice.

He said: ‘I am no Corbynista but within day of his election he asked me to lead a review on access to justice to develop a policy that Labour could be proud of. It is about time a major political party looked hard on what a principled policy on access to justice should look like in a country that prides itself on the rule of law.’

Readers' comments (16)

  • Hooray for Jeremy!

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  • And Geoff Hoon as Minister for the LCJ was the one who set the spark, he and jack Straw, Blunkett etc should be ashamed but I doubt they have the capacity or self awareness.

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  • The Blairites didn't and don't believe in public provision for the disadvantaged, much like the Tories, which might explain why Corbyn demolished his rivals. it's all too little, too late m'lud.

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  • The only way to assure victims of crime that justice is achievable is to fully resource the criminal justice system and to make sure that access to justice is a reality for all.
    So long as the politicians continue to refer to the funding of justice as a burden on taxpayers the burden on victims and defendants and the system will be much heavier than it needs to be.

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  • "There are no votes in saying you're going to pay lawyers more money". Oh, have I mentioned that one before? well LSG no doubt has new readers from time to time.

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  • Before the general election in 2005 the Labour Party held a fringe meeting at its Annual Conference in Brighton. The subject was 'legal aid' and it was presented to an audience of about 50 by David Lock who was then No.2 in the old Justice or Lord Chancellor's Dept.
    There were solicitors and at least one District Judge present with a mixture of para-legals. We were there to hear what the Labour Government had to say on the future of legal aid. The system then had been under annual attack from the Labour Government.
    Lock perhaps did not know his audience and stood in front of us and said, with a grin on his face "Well, of course, all Labour M.Ps hate lawyers." Perhaps he thought such an inane comment would be well received. I have always wished with hindsight I had walked out but I was taken aback by the ignorance underlying that statement. I realised there was no future for that area of work and my Firm soon after withdrew after providing legal aid services for more than 20 years. So, labour definitely set the ball rolling to destroy a great public service and to vindictively undermine the legal profession. Successive governments having to make public expenditure savings have continued the trend with a vengeance.

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  • Interesting post, Keith. I have been reprimanded for saying what Ian Lucas MP (Labour:Wrexham) had to say about legal aid.

    BTW Did you see Blairs' 'heavies' manhandle out of the hall 85 year old Walter Wolfgang when he tried to ask Jack Straw about the Iraq war? And he had been a lifelong Labour member and even once a candidate, well after he escaped from Nazi Germany he was. He must have thought he was back there in Brighton 2005.

    They're all heart. (Google Labour Party Conference 2005 Brighton Walter Wolfgang if you really want to see them at their worst)

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  • In essence the hatred for legal aid lawyers comes from the perception that legal aid is a gravy train, that legal aid is an unnecessary burden on the taxpayer and that the system can churn out justice without lawyers acting for parties to the proceedings.
    In family cases the MoJ promotes mediation as a cheap, effective alternative by perpetuating the myth that lawyers drag clients through a court battle. The truth is that only about 8% of cases go to final hearing.
    The MoJ and Judges and HMCTS and every other bugger repeat the party line that we have to work within the financial restraints of austerity without asking whether the system, if fully resourced, would deliver results beyond the merely financial.
    Access to justice has a price. No one is willing to make the Government pay that price. A properly resourced justice system would deliver results beyond the cash accounting analysis of how much money was spent on it. Less waste. Real efficiency. Justice for all.

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  • Arthur "less waste" is my watchword. Throwing yet more money at a system, just as with NHS and education, will simply guarantee more waste. Just look at the cost to the fund of those abortive Crown Court trials, of the Omah bombing case, of Leigh Day's excursions into Bhagdad. Those are the sorts of case which are ruining the system and making legal aid unavailable to the cases we all would say need it and should have it.

    And perhaps I should add "abuse". It was abuse which did for the Green Form Scheme (Anyone remember that one?)

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  • David, people used to talk about abuse of the green form scheme. I think that in the most part this was an urban myth. A rogue solicitor can work any system, there are still some out there now, we could probably all name one. However, the green form scheme was an excellent way of helping people quickly and with a myriad of problems. It was done at the cheapest rate of pay, cheaper than work done on a certificate. So I could help a client with debt which could often lead to a resolution of their housing issues because now they had an agreement to pay arrears and thus avoid being made homeless with their children. This required me quickly filling in a form. It did not require panel status, someone else to monitor the panel, it didn't require an expensive use of my time or the LABs applying for a certificate, it didn't require a whole team of LAB staff to come in and audit my files, thus wasting more of my time and theirs. It was an efficient and cheap method of helping many people and it allowed us to take a holistic approach. Compare that with the situation today. On another note I once listened to Geoff Hoon in Newcastle say to us we will squeeze you lawyers on legal aid until you squeal like pigs! Jacqueline Emmerson.

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