Labour urged to 'step up and defend legal aid legacy'

This article was authored by Monidipa Fouzder and originally published in The Law Society Gazette on 1st July 2019.

Labour has been urged by its supporters to commit to a fully funded legal aid system in its next election manifesto. The call from Labour Campaign for Human Rights has been backed by former lord chancellor Lord Falconer and Andy Slaughter MP.

The campaign group wants its party to adopt the recommendations in the Bach Commission's 2017 Right to Justice report. The commission, chaired by Lord Bach (Willy Bach), proposed a Right to Justice Act, which would codify and supplement existing rights and establish a new right for individuals to receive reasonable legal assistance, without costs they cannot afford.

The group says shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon MP committed to reform in 2018 'but no further action has been taken yet'.

Matthew Turner, the group's chair, said: 'Rights granted to British citizens are meaningless unless they can be enforced in the courts. That is why we are calling on Labour to treat the right to justice as a fundamental human rights issue. The Bach Commission recommendations must become official Labour Party policy.

'Legal aid cannot be seen as a fringe issue. Access to justice needs to be treated with the same level of seriousness as our education system or the NHS. It was the post-war Labour government that introduced legal aid, and we need to step up and defend that legacy now.'

Lord Falconer, lord chancellor between 2003 and 2007, said this year that he regretted that his government's efforts to curb the legal aid budget resulted in the public feeling that legal aid lawyers had their 'noses in the trough'.

Today, he said: 'It's absolutely critical Labour commit to restoring levels of legal aid which means the poorest do, genuinely, have the protection of the law. At the moment only the rich have those protections. It's critical that safeguards are built in, which stop any future government from dismantling those protections. That's why the legal protection guarantee that Lord Bach proposed should be made law as soon as Labour get to power.'

The group's call is also backed by the Haldane Society for Socialist Lawyers and Society of Labour Lawyers.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which came into force in 2013, has had a devastating impact on access to justice. Legally aided matters have fallen from over 900,000 a decade ago to less than 15,000 now. The number of not-for-profit legal advice centres has more than halved.

Last week a criminal defence solicitor in her 20s revealed her team was being made redundant 'due to legal aid not being as profitable'. London firm Ewing Law announced that it had closed its legal aid department. Swansea firm TA Law, which has helped 90,000 vulnerable people over the past decade, closed its doors last month.

The Young Legal Aid Lawyers Group and All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid has signed up 35 MPs to shadow frontline legal aid lawyers as part of a 'Take Your MP to Work' campaign.