This year’s party conference season was inevitably dominated by Brexit debates and politics, but that’s not to say that access to justice was off the agenda.
In fact, there were a number of access to justice-themed meetings – but were there any new ideas? Some familiar issues were touched upon; however, in search for solutions there were strong elements of ‘groundhog day’.
Liberal Democrats (Brighton)
The Lib Dems held one fringe meeting on ‘The future of legal aid – how can access to justice be restored?’ Hosted by the Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association and JUSTICE, and chaired by solicitor Andrew Haslam-Jones, the panel comprised: Lib Dem spokesperson for justice, Lord Marks QC; Andrea Coomber, director of JUSTICE; criminal defence barrister, Antony Hook; Scottish MP and solicitor, Alistair Carmichael MP; and finally, myself. It would be cheeky for me to suggest there was a flavour of ‘cut in haste, repent at leisure’; however, the point was made by Lord Marks that the cuts under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) were seen by some in the coalition government as temporary to meet restrictions on the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ’s) budget under a deficit-busting spending review. In fact, they have turned out to be deeper and more enduring, leaving not only significant unmet need but also a budget underspend that the MoJ has not reinvested back into the system. Early advice should be prioritised, and Lord Marks committed to the Low Commission
’s strategy on this.
Issues about access to justice also came up at the Law Society’s evening fringe event on the impact of Brexit on the justice system, with Rhodri Thompson QC, Baroness Ludford, Law Society deputy vice president David Greene, and University of Reading academic Dr Ruvi Ziegler, with much concern expressed about practice and enforcement rights, especially involving cross-border family and civil cases, as well as immigration law and citizenship.
LawWorks, working with the University of Liverpool, organised ‘The access to justice fringe’, a two-hour session on the Monday morning of conference. The panel included: shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon MP; Lord Bach, talking about the Fabian Society policy report, The right to justice: the final report of the Bach Commission
(September 2017), one year on; solicitor Deborah Tyfield, who runs Liverpool University’s law clinic; researchers Dr Jennifer Sigafoos and Dr James Organ from Liverpool University Law School; and Steve Hynes, director of LAG.
Lord Bach highlighted one of the main recommendations of his report, that there needs to be a legislated set of ‘minimum standards’ for access to justice enforced by a public body. Burgon repeated a bold offer, which he had made at the Society of Labour Lawyers’ fringe the previous evening, that Labour would invest in a ‘new generation of Law Centres’. Absent, however, were ballpark figures, and where this might sit on the scale of priorities for a future Labour government.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the fringe was the presentation from the Liverpool academics, commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to produce the report, The impact of LASPO on routes to justice
(September 2018). The report captures, at both quantitative and qualitative levels, the emotional, social, financial and mental health impacts for individuals attempting to resolve their legal problems in Liverpool in the post-LASPO landscape. The meeting also heard about the experiences of Liverpool University’s law clinic.
Two key All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) – the APPG on Pro Bono and Public Legal Education, and the APPG on Legal Aid – organised a fringe meeting at the office of Irwin Mitchell on ‘Rethinking access to justice – risks and opportunities from the Ministry of Justice’s legal aid (LASPO) review’. Chaired by Alex Chalk MP, the panel included justice minister Lucy Frazer QC MP, Justice Select Committee chair Bob Neill MP, Legal Aid Practitioners Group director Carol Storer, myself, and Oliver Carter from Irwin Mitchell, who co-chairs the Young Legal Aid Lawyers group.
Frazer kicked off talking about the review, and work to widen availability in domestic violence situations, as well as the MoJ’s plans to make legal aid available for inquests. Key priorities for the minister were to stop other departments burdening the justice system (as a result of poor law and decision-making), and to use technology to improve the system and the public’s access to it (Frazer also spoke on these themes at JUSTICE’s fringe with the Law Society and the Society of Conservative Lawyers on ‘Making the justice system work’). Neill followed, repeating the concerns of the Justice Select Committee.
As regards the review itself, Frazer stressed that she wanted it to be robust and engaged with stakeholders – it will report to her and be published by the end of the year, and she was expecting an interim progress report shortly. While demonstrating genuine knowledge and interest in the sector, she was challenged by Carter on what assurances could be given about the sustainability of the legal aid profession and career pathways and services, to meet the large and unmet need for legal advice. Under pressure, the response defaulted to the relative ‘generosity’ of our legal aid budget compared with other countries. That, of course, is for another debate, though I mentioned a research report from the Dutch Ministry of Justice, which concluded that England and Wales are special ‘in that they exclude far more areas from legal aid than other countries, due to recent legislation that came into force on April 1, 2013’ (Legal aid in Europe: nine different ways to guarantee access to justice?
, HiiL, 21 February 2014, page 30).