Labour peer Lord Bach has praised the team behind the Ministry of Justice's review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act - but described the report as a missed opportunity.
Giving a keynote address at the Hammersmith & Fulham Advice Conference in London today, Lord Bach (the barrister Willie Bach), who served as a justice minister under the last Labour government, told the Hammersmith & Fulham Advice Conference that the 293-page report was a 'serious piece of work' and congratulated the review team for its 'welcoming and inclusive attitude'.
Lord Bach acknowledged a 'shift of tone from the absolutely blank responses Andy [Labour MP Andy Slaughter] and I have become accustomed to from the government over the last seven or eight years. There are hints that some lessons have been learned'. But, he said: 'Whatever gloss you put on it, the end result is deeply, deeply disappointing.'
Lord Bach set up a commission which spent nearly two years compiling evidence for its Right to Justice report. Proposals included a Right to Justice Act, which would codify and supplement existing rights and establish a new right for individuals to receive reasonable legal assistance, without costs they cannot afford.
Lord Bach said: 'The report I chaired argued for a new cross-party approach to legal aid. In our report, we proposed a Right to Justice Act based on the proposition that the state has an obligation to ensure access to justice in the same way the state has an obligation to a public health service and a decent education for citizens.'
None of the 25 proposed reforms were revolutionary, Bach said. 'I did not expect the government to pick each and every one of them. But looking at it in the round, very little of what we said has been taken on board. It is a profound regret. An opportunity missed.'
Lord Bach described part one of LASPO as a 'poorly considered, executed piece of legislation'.
He said: 'It represents in concept and in practice a pretty fundamental attack on the concept of access to justice. Less justice, less advice, less practitioners, less students who have to study social welfare law as part of a law degree, more deserts, more citizens unaware of their rights, more lives that have had to suffer.
'Why all that? Just because the government of the day completely failed to grasp and understand that the law that gives justice to those who have the least is in some ways even more important to a decent legal system than the law that gives justice to those who have the most. Part one of LASPO remains, despite the review, a scandal. How disappointing the government did not have the courage to change it.'