Legal aid, immigration – and why lawyers could be the key to the general election.

Legal aid is the great elephant in the room

There’s little doubt that if money was no object Labour would reinstate legal aid and reverse the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. But it is and they won’t. Legal aid loomed over justice discussions like a bereavement over a family dinner. 

With the best will in the world, Labour’s need to appear committed to austerity means legal aid restoration is nothing more than a pipe dream. There was talk of possibly levying higher fines from rogue corporations and putting the money into the justice pot, but no more than talk. Expect more airing of ‘alternative funding approaches’ in coming weeks.

Legal aid is at the back of the queue, but as one barrister and delegate pointed out, how can £2.5bn be found to protect medical advice when we’re scrabbling down the back of the sofa to fund legal advice? The state will apparently prioritise your health but not your freedom.

Reform is on the agenda

If the legal aid element of LASPO is untouchable for now, the rest is definitely up for grabs. It may not be a vote-winner, but Labour has a real ambition to clean up CFA legislation and swing the pendulum back in favour of claimant lawyers (note: the first marquee sponsor inside the conference was Thompsons Solicitors).

Basically, anything that has been reformed by the Conservatives and is cheap to reverse, is fair game. 

We won’t know Labour's agenda until November

The problem, as one Labour insider pointed out, is that the opposition simply does not know how much is in the kitty. Under pre-election conventions, the party will have access to Ministry of Justice civil servants from November, after which we can expect some concrete promises. 

Sadiq Khan is a smooth operator

The differences between Sadiq Khan and Chris Grayling – his opposite number in government – are stark. Grayling has the air of a father exasperated by naughty children, whereas Khan is the car salesman type – sharp suit, gelled hair and even the occasional wink.

There’s no doubt that Khan is more at home in the company of lawyers than Grayling, who seems self-conscious of his non-legal background, and a Labour win might do something to repair the fractious relationship between the profession and the justice department. 

Human Rights Act is the biggest justice battleground

Quite simply, the Conservatives want to scrap it, while Labour won’t. There aren’t many more starkly opposite stances taken by the two parties – expect human rights to crop up plenty of times in the build-up to May 2015.

Tribunal talk still vague

There was no shortage of people willing to denounce the fall in employment tribunal cases since the introduction of fees. Finding an actual policy – least of all a pledge to remove fees – was more tricky. Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna pledged reform, but no more. His colleague Liam Byrne told a fringe meeting of small businesses that the new tribunal regime will bring ‘certainty, speed and clarity’ to proceedings.

It would be nice to have a little detail of how.

Lawyers could decide the general election

It would be a brave politician who takes on one solicitor’s suggestion that the House of Commons needs more lawyers.

But that’s exactly what it could get next year. Labour has a number of lawyers running campaigns in key seats: barrister Catherine Atkinson will seek to overturn a 2,500 Conservative majority in Erewash; another barrister, Sarah Sackman, will attempt to regain Finchley and Golders Green from the Tories; solicitor Sundip Meghani will try to reduce former Solicitor General Edward Garnier’s huge majority in Harborough. A win for any of those and Labour could be well on the way to Downing Street. 

Immigration talk avoided, but change could happen

Plenty of legal delegates spoke during the week about the effect of the government’s immigration policy on the ability to recruit top talent. It’s a problem the City has been vocal about in the past. Labour in public believes it’s a toxic subject (see Ed Miliband’s speech) but at fringe meetings members were more sympathetic.

MP Seema Malhotra told one event that immigration policy had ‘pandered to populism rather than doing what’s right’. Change could be forthcoming. 

Labour is wary of another defeat

It just didn’t feel like the final party conference before a general election. There wasn’t the energy, the reforming zeal or confidence of a party expecting to sweep to power. Many MPs were exhausted having travelled straight from campaigning in Scotland to save the union.

Politicians spoke of ‘when we win’ with hope rather than anticipation. Increases in Conservative majorities are relatively rare in modern history, but then so are one-term governments. Something has to give.

John Hyde is a Gazette reporter