“I expected a sense of futility about another review of legal aid, but there is great enthusiasm for Labour’s Commission on Access to Justice.”
After the announcement by the Labour party of a new Commission on Access to Justice, to review legal aid (both civil and crime), the Legal Aid Practitioners Group invited its chair, Lord Bach, to speak at our annual conference. I rather cynically expected a sense of futility about another review, but in feedback forms there was great enthusiasm for this project.
Why was I cynical about the profession’s reaction? There has been a lot of analysis of the effect of LASPO. Both before and after its implementation, there was no shortage of information about the likely problems that would be caused. The effect on the vulnerable has been set out very clearly:
•in the more than 5,000 responses to the original consultation;
•in the responses to the Transforming legal aid: next steps consultation;
•in evidence to the justice select committee and its report;
•in the recent reports from the Ministry of Justice such as the Survey of not for profit legal advice providers in England and Wales; and
•in the evidence submitted in the various legal challenges – on domestic violence, judicial review, exceptional case funding, prison law etc.
When invited to join the commission, I said yes. Legal aid has endured so much government intervention, clients are suffering and the provider base is stretched. Let’s pull together what evidence we can and make sensible suggestions for the future.
The Bach Commission’s aims
The commission will explore establishing access to justice as a fundamental public entitlement. Its findings will be considered by Labour’s policy review. It will hear from a range of experts and provide evidence-based proposals for how to restore access to legal information, advice and representation. Its starting point will be that access to justice is an essential public service, equal to healthcare or education.
Let’s pull together what evidence we can and make sensible suggestions for the future.
The Fabian Society is providing support for the commission’s work. This is very welcome as there is a lot to be done if a draft report is to be produced by conference time (the second half of September 2016) and a final report by spring 2017.
Who’s who on the Bach Commission?
Chair Lord Bach is the shadow justice minister. In previous years, as minister for legal aid in a time of many cuts, he presided over an increase in spending on social welfare law. He has always been passionate about the need for properly funded social welfare advice and chaired the Study of legal advice at local level (June 2009), looking at its provision.
Commissioners include Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson DBE DL; Hillsborough lawyer Raju Bhatt; Law Centres Network director Julie Bishop; former Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff CBE; Nicola Mackintosh QC (hon), LAPG’s co-chair; and former Lord Justice of Appeal Sir Henry Brooke CMG. A full list can be found on the Fabian Society’s website.
The commission is supported by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, shadow justice secretary Lord Falconer and shadow Attorney-General Karl Turner. Corbyn has regularly attended the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid (run by LAPG and Young Legal Aid Lawyers) and indeed was its chair at the end of the last parliament.
Dr Laura Janes, consultant solicitor and founder of Young Legal Aid Lawyers, is another commissioner. She says: ‘The commission could not come at a better time. For the first time, we have a leader of an opposition party who understands the critical importance of access to justice in a healthy democratic society. We also have a secretary of state who appears to be prepared to listen. I hope that this review will set a principled gold standard for a justice system that is fair and accessible for everyone. I also hope it will pave the way for a system that can be properly served by the next generation of lawyers committed to justice for all.’
The commission met for the first time on 19 January 2016. It has a list of organisations from which it wishes to hear. At the first meeting, Richard Miller, head of legal aid at the Law Society, addressed the commission. His evidence will be made public shortly. Afterwards, he said: ‘I felt very privileged to be the Bach Commission’s first witness. This review provides a valuable opportunity for all of us who care about the ability of people to enforce basic rights to consider the fundamental question of how to improve access to justice for everyone in the 21st century.’