Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Access to justice

I came across the following motion which our party submitted to Liberal Democrat federal conference four or five years ago, and which was rejected. (I have deleted some stuff about the iniquitous court charges, which even the Conservatives realised were over the top and repealed in 2015.) 

Conference notes:

  1. The United Kingdom created legal aid in 1949, as part of the great post-war liberal reforms and today all of Europe, United States, Canada and most of the Commonwealth have legal aid systems of some kind.
  2. Since 1997 UK governments have progressively restricted the number of civil causes for which legal aid is available and consistently cut the criminal legal aid budget
  3. The number of solicitors' firms which are permitted to perform legal aid work has been cut
  4. Legal aid is now severely means-tested
  5. Legal aid is not available to persons who need to be legally represented at interviews conducted by government departments which have powers of prosecution
  6. Acquitted defendants are no longer entitled to Defence Costs Orders, which meant that the state reimbursed their costs if they had paid privately for their defence
  7. Magistrates courts have been reduced in number and concentrated in large towns and cities

Conference believes:

  1. All persons are entitled to justice regardless of status, wealth or income
  2. The restrictions on legal aid act as a strong disincentive to those of limited means pursuing justified claims in the civil courts or defending themselves against criminal charges

Conference calls for:

  1. The Ministry of Justice to reduce court costs by introducing business-like measures to cut waiting times and wasted use of human capital
  2. The Ministries of Justice and Treasury jointly to review the working of the legal aid system to see whether value for money has truly been achieved overall by concentration and centralisation
  3. Legal aid to be restored for landlord-and-tenant cases
  4. Legal aid to be made available to clients of DWP interviewed in connection with social security fraud

It is gratifying to see that the spirit of the motion became party policy in 2019, though I would have liked to see the specific aim of making the courts more efficient included. 

It was disappointing and more than a little surprising that Labour has committed itself to going only part-way to Liberal Democrat policy in respect of legal aid. (Why stop at unwinding no further back than 2012? Why not accept that New Labour, which the Corbynistos reject, got it wrong too?) Typically, Labour wants also to set up new institutions when what is needed is to make existing ones work better.

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