Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will today call on the government to initiate an immediate review of cuts to civil legal aid.
Writing for BarTalk, the Bar Council’s member e-newsletter, Corbyn will argue that access to justice should be considered a ‘fundamental right’ which has been taken away from the poorest and most marginalised.
The coalition government reduced the scope of civil legal aid through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) and has committed to a review of the policy by April 2018.
The reforms reduced spending on civil legal aid by £300m a year, but the National Audit Office last year said the wider costs to the public sector had not been factored in because the Ministry of Justice did not anticipate how people would respond to the changes.
Corbyn last year set up a commission to review legal aid in general. His party today makes an explicit call to the government to immediately look again at its civil funding policies.
He will say: ‘It is clear that the consequences of part one of Laspo are disastrous, yet the government refuses to review the way in which the act is working.
‘That review should be brought forward immediately and action should be taken to assist the most vulnerable. Legal aid has been referred to as the forgotten pillar of the welfare state. It is time to challenge that perception. The principles of access to justice and human rights for all is precisely for what Labour stands.’
Justice minister Shailesh Vara last month rebuffed calls for an immediate review of Laspo, telling the House of Commons: ‘We constantly ensure that matters are kept under review. We are committed to having a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 three to five years after its implementation.’
The MoJ has stated that the legal aid budget is still £1.6bn, making it one of the largest in the world with double the expenditure per head compared with other common law jurisdictions such as Australia, Canada and Northern Ireland.
The last Labour justice secretary Jack Straw made his own commitments to reducing legal aid spending before the 2010 general election.