Willy Bach on tackling the dire consequences of the Coalition’s LASPO Act
Many people, across and beyond both politics and the legal professions, will remember the fight during 2011/12 that Labour and Crossbench peers put up against the Coalition governments notorious Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill. That legislation took away access to justice from many people, by taking vital areas of social welfare law – including housing, debt, employment, benefits and Immigration – out of the scope of legal aid.
As a result, there has been a massive drop in the legal advice citizens can now get at a difficult moments in their lives. The Bill also took private family law out of the scope of legal aid. Justice Minister and Liberal Democrat Peer Lord McNally took the Bill through the House and the Coalition suffered a record number of defeats for its time in office. But the Bill eventually became law.
The consequences of this rotten piece of legislation are the background to the ‘Right to Justice’ report, published by the Fabian Society and to be debated in the Lords today. I chaired the related Commission of experts over a 20 month period, with the members chosen for their professional expertise rather than ideological leanings.
We heard from many witnesses and all of us on the Commission were left in no doubt that a crisis was developing in our much admired justice system, with many people no longer able to get the legal help they need. The foreword to our report read: “We live at a time when the rule of law is under attack. Too many powerful institutions pay lip service to the concept of access to justice without having sufficient regard for what it actually means. It is, after all, fairly simple: unless everybody can get some access to the legal system at the time in their lives when they need it, trust in our institutions and in the rule of law breaks down. When that happens, society breaks down.”
Our main conclusion, which owed much to my Labour Lords colleague Charlie Falconer, was that any government found it too easy to escape its responsibility towards ensuring access to justice.
Over recent years, judges have with courage and perseverance (most recently in the Unison case regarding tribunal fees) stated the constitutional position. We felt however, that there needed to be a statutory basis for a right to justice – something that would hopefully force government to take it every bit as seriously as the rights to a good health service and a decent education. A proposed ‘Right to Justice’ Act would establish an independent body, The Justice Commission, to be led by a senior judge who would enforce, advise and monitor implementation.
Part two of our report argues for urgent action to put right some of the injustices caused by LASPO, with 25 recommendations – including a widening of the scope of legal aid, and the need for early legal advice in matters of family laws. While these reforms would cost around £400m each year, the sad truth is that the government has saved £900m with its cuts – almost double what it intended.
Finally, our report welcomes the idea of consensus towards our proposals. Access to justice should be above party politics. Whatever our affiliations, we all surely want to live in a civilised country under the rule of law?
Lord Willy Bach was Labour’s Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords during the passage of the LASPO Act, and now serves at now serves as Police and Crime Commissioner for Leicestershire. He tweets @FightBach
Published 14th December 2017