Delegates at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton have condemned the ‘severe and lasting consequences’ of coalition cuts for access to justice.
A motion passed by conference on Sunday ‘regrets’ that cuts to the legal aid budget between 2010 and 2015 were ‘dramatic and disproportionate’.
‘Cuts in legal aid have led to justice deserts,’ the motion continued. Domestic violence victims found legal aid arrangements ‘cumbersome and difficult to navigate’, while the cost of the growth of litigants in person was ‘unquantified’.
The motion’s 19-point demands included a call to review the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, and the restoration of legal aid for first-tier appeals in social welfare cases.
A further amendment, which was passed, called for the legal aid ‘Green Form’ scheme to be reintroduced – the system whereby legal aid covered advice from any solicitor where the client did not have the means to pay.
The conference vote implicitly disowns the legacy of Liberal Democrat coalition justice minister Lord McNally and his successor Simon Hughes (pictured).
McNally has given no indication he shares his party’s contrition, telling a recent event: ‘A plea to all the lawyers… You have got to accept that bandying about [the term] "access to justice”, it’s really quite fraudulent… There is still access to justice.’
Liberal Democrat lawyer James Sandbach, who worked for the Low Commission and spoke in the debate, told the Gazette: ‘One in three people have legal problems. No system of legal aid can reach the scale of unmet need, but we can target resources on early advice and public legal education and information.’
Graham Colley, chair of the Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association, said: ‘The obvious way to dramatically reduce spending by the Ministry of Justice is to cut prison numbers.’ The motion, he added, had passed by an overwhelming majority.