02:18, September 22 84 0 theguardian.com

2017-09-22 02:18:04
The fightback against the Conservatives’ legal aid desert begins today

Food banks, zero-hours contracts and the bedroom tax are perhaps the most potent symbols of the cruelty of the Conservative government’s cuts agenda. But the scything away at people’s access to justice should be deemed equally callous. This is why I welcome today’s final report by the Bach Commission on Access to Justice, published by the Fabian Society. As the report makes clear, our democracy and the rule of law depend on people being able to defend their rights. But if they lack the money or the knowledge to do so, their rights in law are worth nothing more than the paper they are written on.

This summer’s supreme court ruling that the government had been acting unlawfully by imposing employment tribunal fees underlines just how far the government has gone in restricting people’s access to justice.

It is legal aid that has borne the brunt of cuts to the Ministry of Justice budget, some of the deepest in government. The introduction of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) in 2012 left many vulnerable people unable to defend themselves in areas as fundamental as housing, employment, immigration and welfare benefits.

Figures that Labour obtained from the government last week show the devastating consequences of Laspo, with legal aid providers across England and Wales down by 20%. With access to legal aid restricted, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people representing themselves in court. This has negative consequences not only for the litigant but also for court resources.

These legal aid reforms were initially intended to save the government £350m (in today’s prices) every year. But the Bach commission’s report shows that legal aid spending fell by more than double that, totalling £950m less in real terms in 2016-2017 than in 2010-2011. I can’t believe the need for legal aid has diminished to this extent under the current Conservative government.

Where legal aid provision does still exist, it is often in name only. Advice deserts are emerging, where there are no longer legal aid providers to give advice on particular issues. A recent Law Society study found that “almost one third of legal aid areas have one – and, in some cases, zero – firms who provide housing advice which is available through legal aid”.

Just as tuition fees have excluded many young people from fulfilling their dream of attending university, the cuts and higher charges have left our justice sector, in the words of our most senior judge, “unaffordable to most”.

Nine long months ago May’s government announced that it had set the ball rolling on a review of its legal aid changes. Last week the government once again refused to say when its review would come out. In its absence, it is Labour that has seized the initiative.

One of Jeremy Corbyn’s first acts as Labour leader was to support the establishment of an access to justice commission made up of legal experts, chaired by Lord Bach, and with the Fabian Society as secretariat. Over nearly two years the commission heard from more than 100 individuals and organisations with special expertise in all parts of the justice system. Last year it issued its first report, revealing a justice system in crisis. Today’s final report sets out its vision to resolve that crisis.

I am particularly excited by the idea in the report of a new, legally enforceable right to justice to match our rights to healthcare and education. Likewise, the report’s suggestion that investment in early legal advice and assistance could actually save the state resources by preventing the need for more costly legal representation and the escalation of disputes into court cases merits serious consideration. This pioneering report will certainly play an important role in informing the debates around Labour’s next manifesto process and our vision of a fairer justice system.

The Conservatives should now stop dragging their feet and publish this delayed review into their legal aid changes. Meanwhile, there is much in Lord Bach’s report that the government could get on with implementing ahead of the next election, if it is serious about restoring access to justice.

Richard Burgon is the shadow justice secretary