Willy Bach on why the ongoing crisis in civil legal aid demands a new political consensus
The House of Lords will discuss the state of Legal Aid on Thursday. I instigated the debate because it has become increasingly clear that our much admired justice system is at risk. I have listened to a host of people: those directly affected by the changes, judges, advice centre lawyers, practicing barristers and solicitors, and members of CILEx (the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives). While committed to upholding the highest standards of our legal system, they all share a fear of what the future holds.
Whether home or abroad, the reputation of the UK legal system is based in large part on our practical commitment to the concept of access to justice. The principle that all citizens, whoever they may be, are entitled to protect their legal interests is so central to the rule of law that any falling away attacks its very foundation.
Real and practical access to justice is vital; otherwise a theoretical entitlement is useless. The introduction of state funded legal aid by Clement Attlee’s Labour government meant that justice was for the first time, truly available to all. Over the following decades, successive governments strengthened this principle and the idea that the existence of legal aid makes us a more civilised and tolerant country was something on which the main political parties converged.
Of course, the resources given to legal aid cannot be limitless. Funding must compete with other claims for public expenditure and getting the balance right is never easy. Cutting legal aid however, will not necessarily save money in the long-run. Legal problems that are not dealt with can have unforeseen consequences that result in the state – and the tax-payer – having to pick up the pieces.
The consensus in favour of a proper system of legal aid broke down because the 2010-15 Coalition government decided to remove large amounts of funding and failed to recognise the wider impact. Nothing shows the effects of that decision more starkly then the astonishing drop in advice and assistance starts in Social Welfare legal matters. In 2009/10 there were 471,000; by 2013/14, 52,000. A 90% fall. Hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens who would have previously received advice are now unable to do so. If ever there was an attack on access to justice, this was it.
Shortly after he became leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn asked me to lead a review into the future of legal aid. We are in the process of setting up a high powered Commission to help produce a principled and credible policy. The review will be inclusive and will take note of the many excellent ideas put forward by other organisations, and include people with different areas of expertise and different political views. My hope is that before too long there can once again be a consensus as to the importance of legal aid to our society. It is time for the government to begin to undo the damage caused during the past five years.
Lord Willy Bach is a member of Labour’s frontbench team in the House of Lords. He tweets @FightBach
Published 9th December 2015