At the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Access to Justice
, we have spent months engaging with the political parties to determine their priorities in the run-up to the election. To that end, we hosted an event in Westminster on 23 October 2023, chaired by Laura Farris (who was then our co-chair, but is now minister for victims and safeguarding), to ask lord chancellor and justice secretary Alex Chalk KC, attorney general Victoria Prentis KC, and Sir Bob Neill, chair of the House of Commons Justice Committee: ‘What Next for Justice?’
The lord chancellor commenced by setting out his priorities: strengthening the justice system; upholding the rule of law; fortifying the court estate (with £220m set aside by the Treasury); and ensuring access to justice. Reiterating the need for individuals to have redress for grievances, he touched on early legal support and advice, and combating violence against women and girls. The lord chancellor highlighted the work of the government, emphasising increases in prosecutions for violence and rape compared with 2010, with more perpetrators being sentenced and longer sentences being imposed. On implementing digital solutions to justice issues, he referred to FLOWS
(Finding Legal Options for Women Survivors), which offers quick, tech-enabled advice and support to survivors of domestic abuse. Regarding suspended sentence orders, he argued that they must command the confidence of judges and the public if they are to work as a deterrent.
Three questions from the floor summarised the concerns of practitioners across the sector. Wilson Solicitors deputy managing partner Matthew Davies listed the areas of law that his firm has had to drop as a result of diminishing legal aid fees. He queried why the Review of Civil Legal Aid
(RoCLA) won’t touch on scope or fees. Family lawyer Jenny Beck KC (Hon) added that digital solutions to domestic abuse such as FLOWS can only go so far, as lawyer shortfall remains the biggest challenge. CILEX Fellow and police station duty solicitor Roger Ralph described conducting a hearing in a courtroom with metal buckets placed around its centre to catch rainfall.
Responding, the lord chancellor decried how legal aid and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) have been easy targets for successive governments as the budget is not protected. On the subject of investment in the courts estate and in recruitment and retention, he cited the accelerated reforms and fee increases following the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid
(CLAIR). Most importantly for those of us in the audience, he added that the current RoCLA will do for civil what CLAIR did for crime, noting that ‘we have to reverse a trend where public-spirited lawyers who are upholding access to justice are turning away from the profession’.
Neill was succinct: ‘What next for justice? More money please.’ Arguing for a reframing of justice, he exhorted practitioners to work with the MoJ, their local MPs and to convince the Treasury, government and society that investing in justice is just as important as education and healthcare. He described Chalk, Prentis and Farris – all alumni of the Justice Committee – as genuinely passionate about justice and access to it. What was clear in the meeting was the understanding on the part of the law officers of the need for investment and the crucial role that practitioners play in holding the system together. An understanding that seems to be in direct conflict with the political will of the moment.