Labour to push for fairer access to the justice system

An “independent inspectorate” should be created to restore minimum standards of access to justice and establish equality within the courts, according to a report commissioned by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party leadership.

The interim study by the Bach Commission, published on Friday, acknowledges that deep cuts to legal aid imposed by past governments cannot be entirely reversed in the current financial climate.

Past economies, particularly the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Prosecution of Offenders Act 2012 (Laspo), it says, have reduced the justice system to a state of crisis with hundreds of thousands of people being deprived of the legal support.

The number of not-for-profit legal advice centres has fallen from 3,226 in 2005 to 1,462 over the past decade, exceptional case funding for legal aid fails to support those in desperate need and high court fees are deterring claimants pursuing justice in employment tribunals and the courts, the report notes. Since 2010, the annual legal aid budget has fallen from £2.1bn to £1.6bn.

While not formally adopted as Labour policy, the report, overseen by the former justice minister Lord Bach, was commissioned by Jeremy Corbyn and the previous shadow justice secretary, Lord Falconer. The Fabian Society has provided support. Other commissioners and advisers include Sir Henry Brooke, a former court of appeal judge, Julie Bishop, director of the UK law centres network, and John Cooper QC.

Aimed at developing future policy for the Labour party, the authors hope to build a broad consensus for improving access to the courts. The report quotes the current lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, as saying: “Our justice system has become unaffordable to most.”

The final study is due to be published next summer before Labour’s conference. It is being crowd-funded – an initiative increasingly used by claimants for bringing legal challenges that might formerly have been paid for by legal aid.

“Cuts to legal aid have created a two-tier justice system in which the poorest go without representation or advice,” the report says. “Our commission understands the economic and political imperative to control public spending, and we do not simply propose to repeal Laspo in its entirety.

“Instead, the commission will establish a set of minimum standards for access to justice, and explore policy options in a number of key areas to make those standards realisable.”

The report outlines six “core problems” in the justice system: loss of legal aid for housing, welfare, debt, immigration, medical negligence and family law cases; failure of the exceptional case funding scheme; lack of public legal education; mass closures of legal advice centres; higher court fees; excessive bureaucracy in the Legal Aid Agency; and antiquated technology.

On its main policy recommendations, the commission says it will develop “minimum standards for access to justice to be enshrined clearly in law – which could include legal aid for all those who need it, equality of arms [so that both sides are represented in a case], sufficient and comprehensive legal education, and the availability of accessible technologies of triage.”

An independent inspectorate, it says, “will consider the enforcement of these standards” in the same way that there is already a chief inspector of prisons. “The commission will consider whether there should be a chief inspector of the justice system to hold government to account,” it adds.

Legal aid was also cut under the last Labour government. Lord Bach, chair of the commission, said: “Our interim report shows that our justice system is creaking at the seams. The LASPO cuts have produced a crisis in the justice system and the poorest in our society can no longer receive the legal support they require.

“This unacceptable state of affairs needs challenging and changing. This report is the starting point in our ongoing work to redesign the justice system so that it works for all. The commission intends now to turn to working through the policy solutions to fix this crisis.”

Richard Burgon, shadow secretary of state for justice and shadow lord Chancellor, endorsed the findings, saying: “Since 2010, the Conservatives have implemented unprecedented cuts to legal aid, putting justice beyond the reach of thousands.

“There is much of substance in the report, which will be welcome to all those who value the principle of access to justice. I am particularly excited by the idea of enshrining in law a minimum standard for access to justice.

“A basic threshold for access to justice has the potential to be a historic advance in our law which could improve the lives of thousands.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We have a world-leading legal system and last year spent more than £1.5bn on legal aid.

“We must ensure legal aid is sustainable and fair – both for those who need it and the taxpayer who pays for it. That is why we have made sure support remains available to the most vulnerable and in the most serious cases.

“We have committed to carrying out a post-implementation review of the civil legal aid changes and an announcement on this will be made in due course.”