19:06, September 21 70 0 theguardian.com

2017-09-21 19:06:03
Labour-backed report calls for more generous legal aid system

An additional £400m a year should be spent restoring access to a more generous system of legal aid, according to a Labour-backed report which calls for a legally enforceable right to justice.

The two-year-long review, led by the former justice minister Lord Bach, launches an alternative vision of equality before the law and condemns austerity policies that have imposed a “disproportionate” share of cuts on the legal system.

Commissioned by Jeremy Corbyn and launched on the eve of the Labour party conference, the study focuses criticism on the coalition government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (Laspo) Act 2012, which severely restricted eligibility and the scope of legal support.

“When the government first introduced Laspo it estimated it would save £450m a year in today’s prices,” the Bach report says. Last year, legal aid spending was £950m less than in 2010. “The Fabian Society estimate the costs of the proposals in this report will initially total less than this underspend, at an estimated cost of around £400m per year.”

The main elements of the extra proposed funding would be £120m for widening the scope of early legal help, £110m for extending eligibility for civil legal aid, £60m for limited widening of the scope of civil legal representation and £50m for a national fund for advice services. Not all the cuts are being reversed.

That pattern of spending reflects a conviction that early legal advice can often prevent disputes escalating into costly court cases, thereby saving money.

These commitments will be underpinned by a new Right to Justice Act, the report says, which would codify existing rights to justice and “reasonable legal assistance”. A new justice commission would monitor and enforce those rights.

There will be a “more generous assessment scheme” for civil legal aid and all benefit recipients will automatically qualify for legal aid. All cases relating to children should be brought back into the scope of legal aid.

“The legal aid system is creaking at the seams,” the Bach report warns, “and practice as a legal aid lawyer is becoming increasingly unsustainable.”

Capital assessments for legal aid entitlement, which include the values of homes, should be scrapped, the report says. Entitlement to early legal help should be restored in all areas cut by Laspo, including debt, employment, welfare benefits, immigration and housing, family law, and for certain prisoners’ cases.

A right to legal representation in court should be restored in large areas of family law, the Bach report states, especially cases involving children. The family courts have been inundated with litigants in persons since the cuts.

At inquests, the report recommends, “where the state is funding one or more of the other parties” it should also provide legal aid for representation of the family of the deceased. This follows calls by the chief coroner last year for more equitable funding.

The Legal Aid Agency should be replaced by an independent “arm’s length body”, Bach proposes. Legal education should also be introduced to schools to raise public awareness of citizens’ rights.

The government’s own statistics show spending on legal aid has fallen sharply from £2.6bn in 2005-06 to £1.5bn last year. The steep decline came after 2013 when Laspo came into effect.

Among Laspo defects highlighted is the exceptional case funding scheme designed to mitigate cuts. “The government suggested around 847 children and 4,888 young adults would be granted exceptional funding each year,” the Bach report said. “Yet between October 2013 and June 2015 only eight children and 28 young adults were granted legal aid under the scheme.”

Legal aid was introduced in 1949 by the postwar Labour government along with the NHS and welfare reforms. It has not, however, gained the level of public affection that the health service has achieved, partly because few people anticipate ever having to go to court.

Bach, chair of the Access to Justice commission, said: “No person should be denied justice simply because they cannot afford it. We need a new act which defends and extends the right to justice, and we need a new body tasked with implementing it.

“The government must take urgent action to address the crisis in our justice system. This means broadening the scope of legal aid, reforming eligibility requirements and taking action to improve the public’s understanding of the law.”

The report only deals with England and Wales. While it has not been formally adopted as Labour policy, the party’s shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon MP, welcomed the report.

The Ministry of Justice is also reviewing the impact of Laspo but is not expected to report until next spring. There has been widespread criticism of the cuts by the National Audit Office, senior judges, parliamentary select committees and campaign groups.