Labour will not yet commit to reversing specific changes contained in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, the shadow justice minister said this week.
However, Andrew Slaughter MP promised a future Labour government would ‘rebalance the justice system’ in favour of those seeking civil redress. It would also make more savings from criminal legal aid. On the day the bill received royal assent, Slaughter told the Gazette that legal aid cuts and the Jackson reforms ‘restrict access to justice and tip the scales in favour of big business and the state’.
The challenge for a future Labour government will be to ‘rebalance the justice system so that it can be seen to give access to justice to all… irrespective of their means’.
‘We want to put in place a system that benefits those who have been hurt by these reforms and puts the onus more on those who can afford it to bear the burden,’ said Slaughter.
However he added: ‘I don’t think we can say how we will go about that.’
Under the act, between 2009/10 and 2014/15 the coalition government will cut criminal legal aid by 8%, family legal aid by 29%, and social welfare legal aid by 53%.
Slaughter said his party would seek to make more savings from criminal legal aid and less from civil legal aid, but he would not give specific commitments, saying: ‘You’re going to have to wait and see what the economic terrain is in 2015. Nobody’s making spending pledges now.’
He added: ‘It may be tragic, but we can never go back exactly to where we were before.’ Slaughter said that a Labour government would introduce price-competitive tendering for criminal legal aid services. ‘We‘ve seen nothing in the past two years to say why we shouldn’t press ahead with it,’ said Slaughter.
He said he is ‘alive to the risk involved’, particularly the impact on small firms, ‘but to some extent that is about regulation and the profession organising itself properly’, he said. Slaughter said the full extent of the act’s impact will not be felt for several years and there will be no important changes under the current government.
‘The game for the next three years is adapt and survive,’ he said. While lawyers and advice centres ‘don’t always adapt in ways that are most helpful to poorer clients, that’s not their fault - it’s a direct consequence of what the government is doing’.