Authors:Rohini Jana
Last updated:2023-10-20
Conference season brings ideas but no more money
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Lady Justice close up (Hermann Traub_Pixabay)
By now, all our readers will have seen something of the 2023 party conferences. Of HS2 and broken pledges. Housing targets, living standards, green glitter, Green Britain and post-Brexit farming. Red walls, blue walls and the high walls of Westminster. Over three weeks, thousands of politicians, businesses and party faithful descend on (bemused/belligerent) northern and coastal cities to pay homage at the altar of the various political parties. This year we joined them in Bournemouth, Manchester and Liverpool, campaigning on justice issues and hosting justice events in both Bournemouth and Liverpool. At the time of writing, Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) is due to host a further justice event with the Conservative party in Westminster on 23 October to get a sense of its vision for justice going into the next election. The topic is ‘What Next for Justice?’ and we expect the lord chancellor, the attorney general, and Commons Justice Committee chair Sir Bob Neill MP to speak. Laura Farris MP will be chairing.
September saw the first conference gathering of the Liberal Democrats since 2019, and a gentle sun shone over a quietly optimistic party on the sandy beaches of Bournemouth. There was a sense that perhaps the party is emerging as a major political force once again, undoubtedly sparked by four recent byelection victories. The agenda had a heavy focus on how best to tackle the growing housing crisis and a generational split around the party’s plan to scrap the national housing target, a plan that was ultimately rejected. Other discussions hosted by The Law Society and The Bar Council revolved around the law and liberalism, and LAPG’s own event exploring access to justice on the future Lib Dem manifesto.
Three asks were echoed by every single speaker: (1) an immediate increase in fees, index-linked for future increases; (2) expanded scope to cover early legal advice; and (3) a call to end legal aid deserts by ensuring the existence of local civil and criminal providers.
LAPG argued for scope, sustainability and the future of the profession, citing areas of law to bring back into scope to support the government’s existing legislative agenda. We’ve seen a raft of new legislation in recent years passed with the express purpose of enshrining rights, but there is a yawning gap between rights on a page and those that can be understood and provide protection.
The Lib Dems were in listening mode, but while a justice manifesto is in the process of being drafted, it was a blow to hear that the only access to justice provision included will be to increase police officer numbers. We were told that there will be very little in the pot for justice – disappointing given that the party’s 2019 manifesto made some really sensible justice proposals.
Another week, another conference and a very different mood in Manchester this year from last. Speaking at a Society of Conservative Lawyers event, lord chancellor Alex Chalk KC described legal aid as a ‘profoundly good thing’, emphasising his credentials as a criminal barrister who has undertaken legal aid work and expounding on his commitment to early legal support and advice (or ELSA, which readers might remember from his time as minister for legal aid). He appeared on the main conference stage a few hours later, but here the focus was entirely on prison expansion, the economic benefits of the legal sector and the UK legal sector’s global reputation.
This was a common theme throughout: the law as an industry and as a means of taking criminals off the street, but not as a tool or a means to improve living standards, nor as a fundamental pillar of society. Announcements felt a little like press releases rather than part of a long-term strategy, but at the time of writing we look forward to hearing more on this at the ‘What Next for Justice?’ event on 23 October (see above).
Finally, another journey to the north, this time to a warm and sunny Liverpool. The mood was one of energy, and the beautiful Albert Docks were teeming with 17,000 or so attendees bustling to the various events to a medley of Beatles favourites.
The Society of Labour Lawyers (SLL) had put on an array of justice events around young lawyers, the economic benefits of the legal system, access to justice and immigration, and LAPG hosted its own event, ‘Justice: Putting People First’, with a stellar line-up of speakers. Chaired by Alex Cunningham MP, shadow lead for courts and legal services, the panel – comprising Lord Willy Bach, criminal barrister Joanna Hardy-Susskind, campaigner Zoe Gardner, Housing Law Practitioners’ Association co-chair Simon Mullings and barrister Christian Weaver – talked all things access to justice, violence against women, courts backlogs, housing and immigration. A number of key themes emerged. Joanna spoke movingly of reforms that were making conditions worse for complainants in rape cases. Christian spoke of the heartbreaking disrepair case of Awaab Ishak, which he’d been forced to take on pro bono.
Once again practitioners urged Labour to invest in the legal system, to make changes to scope that would enable practitioners to tackle matters in a holistic manner and to build a viable career out of legal aid work. And once again we were told, this time by chair Alex Cunningham, that ‘[Labour] want [our] ideas for how to fix the system – but don’t ask [them] for any money,’ consistently the party line under the stewardship of Sir Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves. As Shabana Mahmood, shadow lord chancellor, said the following day: ‘The only policies we are putting forward are those which are fully funded.’ This is problematic for a number of reasons for the justice sector. We can show that investment will lead to savings further down the line, but it’s an argument that has always left the Treasury cold. So how, then, to fund legal aid or to make it sustainable?
There were ideas aplenty the following morning at a SLL and Solicitors Regulation Authority event, ostensibly to discuss Nic Madge and Roger Smith’s National Legal Service.1See also Roger Smith’s article in this issue on the SLL’s Towards a National Legal Service pamphlet. Speakers from around the sector were asked what was needed in the next Labour justice manifesto. A number of ideas were mooted, and once again we returned to the theme of infrastructure. There are some impressive headlines in place: plans to increase the number of prosecutors and introduce specialist rape courts; assistance and support for women; rights for tenants; a willingness to help offenders; and an emphasis on education. Yet with legal aid practitioners leaving practice in droves, we lack the infrastructure to truly implement these proposals.
There is a sense that this is a team with an idea of what is needed, but there was very little by way of a clear strategy for making these changes. There was also a clear message that there will be no funding for the justice system until the economy has recovered. It may have been a long, cold, lonely winter for practitioners, but there are no signs that the sun is coming any time soon.
1     See also Roger Smith’s article in this issue on the SLL’s Towards a National Legal Service pamphlet. »