Does the justice system really matter?
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Marc Bloomfield
Most people reading this will think, ‘Of course it does’. The government would say it does.
Yet, day in, day out, the justice system is being let down by an assortment of factors that almost always come down to funding issues. Underfunding of the police, of the Crown Prosecution Service, of the legal aid scheme and of the maintenance of court buildings. Closure of court offices. Selling off the courts. Underfunding the number of judges' sitting days so that cases back up. And, certainly, historic underinvestment in the process of digitisation. The disastrous privatisation of the National Probation Service did not help.
With all the pressures on the system over the past six months, we need the government to take meaningful action. There is a real danger of the system becoming a mere semblance of justice. There are cases going through the system, there are judges, there are lawyers, but the processes are creaking. There is a difference between having a system and having a meaningful system that delivers effective justice. The cuts over the past decade have certainly taken their toll. The recent spending by the government to protect the economy seems to have missed out many parts of the justice system.
Is there any room for hope? At one point, the Post-implementation review of Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) (CP 37, February 2019) was for civil legal aid the only ray of hope. This led to the Legal Support Action Plan (Legal support: the way ahead, CP 40, February 2019). The plan would look at the areas identified such as the means test and carry out a thorough review. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is now continuing with the means test review, which had been paused over the past few months, and will publish the consultation on the review in spring 2021.
In crime, the proposals for the accelerated package announced on 21 August have not proved far-ranging or timely enough, but are at least a start. An independent review of the ‘criminal legal aid market’ will start later this year.
The MoJ’s Legal Support Team is looking at the rapid digitisation of the courts and advice sector. The Civil Justice Council’s report, The impact of COVID-19 measures on the civil justice system (Dr Natalie Byrom, Sarah Beardon and Dr Abby Kendrick, May 2020), is vital to the team’s understanding of the issues. Since September 2017, HM Courts & Tribunals Service and the Good Things Foundation have been working together to pilot a face-to-face digital support service. We understand that the foundation will publish a report about its research findings from 26 pilot centres, setting out what digital support looks like.
The MoJ is aware that when lockdown happened there were many challenges for organisations. Some were simple. What would happen to office numbers? Did staff need mobiles that could take the transferred calls?
But what about the more difficult issues? Face-to-face advice is now extremely limited. Many organisations believe it will have to be rationed in future. Have the most disadvantaged, who relied on face-to-face advice, been lost during the pandemic? What happened when advice went online?
And will the growth of mutual support groups go beyond shopping and collection of prescriptions? Will community groups want to step up and be upskilled?
Many organisations have flagged up that there is no relationship between needs and services, and there must be a proper analysis of need. New legal needs may follow from the social and policy impacts of the pandemic – for example, as furlough and other public support systems start to be withdrawn, unemployment grows, and household and business debt starts to bite. The Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) has been arguing very strongly for a thorough analysis. LAG welcomes the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, chaired by Karen Buck MP and run by LAPG, and its upcoming inquiry into the justice system (see July/August 2020 Legal Action 22).
There is also an MoJ team looking at the sustainability of civil legal aid. It is examining not just fees and bureaucracy, but scope, the pathway into the profession, the delivery model for civil legal aid and the lessons from the recent changes. It has held workshops with stakeholders to hear about their concerns. What are the next steps? The team is continuing to consider the evidence base, and it is working with colleagues across the government, building up to its proposals for the spending review, and there will be a public consultation. The team is keen to hear more and to continue to engage. People can input via their representative bodies or direct to: Civil.LegalAid@justice.gov.uk.
How will all this feed into the comprehensive spending review? The review sets out future departmental spending. How can pressure be put on the chancellor of the exchequer to fund the justice system properly for the years ahead? The Law Society has launched a campaign urging people to write to the chancellor.
The digitisation of the justice system cannot and should not be stopped, but it must be carefully considered. Crude underfunding must stop. A democracy needs a properly functioning justice system. The MoJ civil servants have proved thoughtful and thorough. We need ministers to build on this and to stop the decline in our civil and criminal justice systems. And to do it quickly.

About the author(s)

Description: Carol Storer - author
Carol Storer is interim director of LAG. She was director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group for 10 years until November 2018.