Young Legal Aid Lawyers
“Now, more than ever, access to justice, human rights and the protection of ordinary citizens must become a political imperative.”
In the week after Theresa May became leader of the Conservative party and the government, Young Legal Aid Lawyers, together with LAG and the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, sent an open letter to our new prime minister (see ‘Overdue review into legal aid cuts is a denial of justice’, Guardian, 22 July 2016). We commended her vision of ‘a country that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’, while expressing our view that such a society cannot exist without equal access to justice.
Recent months have seen levels of political upheaval unprecedented in the modern era. However, the appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet creates an opportunity for us, as access to justice campaigners, to engage afresh with the government. We welcome the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Liz Truss, together with her ministerial team at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), which includes Sir Oliver Heald QC, a barrister who will have responsibility for legal aid as courts and justice minister. We believe that now, more than ever, access to justice, human rights and the protection of ordinary citizens must become a political imperative.
In this context, whether it was motivated by principle or pragmatism, May’s announcement during the Conservative leadership contest that she will not seek to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights during this parliament was welcome. When it comes to the government’s long-promised plan to replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights – the draft of which, along with the planned consultation, remains unpublished – many of us may hope that the government has enough on its plate in responding to the EU referendum result without generating another means of destabilising the devolution settlement.
Turning to access to justice, it has now been almost three-and-a-half years since the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), and the legal aid landscape is bleak. The latest statistics published by the Legal Aid Agency demonstrate the huge reduction in the number of cases funded by legal aid. In 2012–13, prior to the implementation of LASPO, 724,243 civil cases were funded by legal help and civil representation certificates. By 2015–16, that figure had fallen to 258,460. As set out in our letter to May: ‘This is a picture of justice denied; of ordinary people cut off from the justice system.’
We call upon the new prime minister and justice secretary to fulfil the government’s commitment to review the cuts to legal aid made by LASPO.
We urge the new team at the MoJ, along with the rest of the government, to consider the impact that legal aid has on the lives of vulnerable individuals and on the rule of law itself. In her previous position as home secretary, May took steps to ensure the families of the 96 people who tragically lost their lives in the Hillsborough disaster could benefit from publicly funded legal representation during the recent inquests. This enabled the righting of a historic injustice and the lawyers who represented the Hillsborough families were fitting recipients of the outstanding achievement award at 2016’s Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards.
It remains highly regrettable that the opportunity for families to secure truth, justice and accountability following the death of a loved one remains out of the scope of legal aid, with applications for representation at inquests subject to the exceptional case funding scheme requirements. The national media have reported on recent cases where legal aid has been refused for grieving families at inquests, such as the investigations into the deaths of five-year-old Alexia Walenkaki and seven-year-old Zane Gbangbola. Andy Burnham’s proposed ‘Hillsborough law’ to ensure public funding for bereaved families at inquests involving the police, alongside the reopened inquest into the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings, may create further impetus for reform in this area.
While inquests into unexplained deaths involving public bodies provide a particularly emotive example of how the restricted scope of legal aid is affecting ordinary people, the total or partial removal of areas such as housing, debt, welfare benefits, immigration and private family law from the legal aid scheme by LASPO is contributing to a crisis in access to justice. We therefore call upon the new prime minister and justice secretary to fulfil the government’s commitment to review the cuts to legal aid made by LASPO and to do so fairly, objectively and as soon as possible.
We hope the change in leadership of the government will result in a more positive future for access to justice. It remains to be seen to what extent the era of austerity economics and public spending cuts will continue under May’s premiership. It may be that, following years of campaigning reactively against legal aid cuts, there is space for the emergence of an optimistic and proactive movement in support of access to justice. If so, we at Young Legal Aid Lawyers will be there, with our campaigning allies, to fill it. ■