Cross-party consensus around access to justice must be built - commission’s report is the start of that process.
The rule of law is the basis of order and just conduct in our society. Without it, people can have no trust in their institutions or in the free associations they form with one another. But maintenance of the rule of law depends on all people having equal access to the law. If some cannot get justice because it is beyond their means, then the rule of law everywhere suffers.
Our country’s founding document, the Magna Carta, in a statute that still stands in English law, states: ‘We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.’ Yet in our society today most people simply cannot afford access to the justice system when they need it.
In the autumn of 2015, I was asked by the leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, and Labour’s then shadow lord chancellor, Charlie Falconer, to undertake a review of the legal aid system. I decided to establish a commission of independent experts to steer a wider review of access to justice, and asked the Fabian Society to work as the commission’s secretariat and help us produce this report.
The rule of law is the basis of order and just conduct in our society. Without it people can have no trust in their institutions or in the free associations they form with one another. But maintenance of the rule of law depends on all people having equal access to the law. If some cannot get justice because it is beyond their means, then the rule of law everywhere suffers.
Today we launch the interim report of the commission, detailing the work that we have done so far and outlining where we need to go next to improve the system.
The report shows how a great many people who previously relied on legal aid are now being denied access to justice because they cannot afford to pay for it. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Prosecution of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) has compounded problems in the justice system that have been years in the making.
The scope of legal aid – in social welfare law, employment law, immigration law, housing law, family law, debt law and medical negligence – has suffered deep cutbacks. Exceptional case funding, which was meant to be a safety net for those in most need, has failed to deliver. Courts and legal advice centres are closing down, while fees for courts and tribunals continue to rise. The result is that now only 17% of the population believe it is easy for people on low incomes to access justice.
When he was lord chancellor, it looked for a moment as though Michael Gove had grasped the scale of the crisis: some of the worst excesses of government policy were reigned in during his brief tenure. I hope that his replacement, Liz Truss, is attuned to the importance of access to justice in a way that her predecessors, Chris Grayling and Kenneth Clarke, were not. The additional funding offered in the autumn statement for 2,500 new prison officers is a start – prisoners have been acutely impacted by the cuts of LASPO with most of their cases no longer eligible for legal aid – but does not get to the heart of the crisis in either the legal profession or the system as a whole.
Our commission understands the economic and political imperative to control public spending, and we do not simply propose to repeal LASPO in its entirety. Instead, we will establish a set of minimum standards for access to justice, and explore policy options in a number of key areas to make those standards work. In particular, we will look at the legal aid system, public legal education, legal advice and integration of services, as well as investigating the role that technological innovation can play.
The justice system is in urgent need of reform, as legal practitioners desert an unsustainable profession and those on the receiving end of the cuts suffer. A cross-party consensus around access to justice must be built to ensure that the justice system is once again affordable for all. Our report is the start of that process.
- The crisis in the justice system in England and Wales is the interim report by the Bach Commission on Access to Justice and is published today by the Fabian Society.
Lord Bach is a former Labour justice minister