This is the first post under the new Justice Matters banner.
As it says on the label, the entire focus will be on Access to Justice for all. My hope is that it will be more than a regular rant but a forum to facilitate lobbying and action. The obvious first question is – why does justice matter?
It is good timing therefore that we have just seen the publication of – The crisis in the justice system in England and Wales from The Bach Commission. This is the work of the group set up by the Labour Party under the leadership of Lord Bach. A full copy of the report is available here –
I don’t intend to review the entire report. But it raises important issues that will hopefully set the scene. The foreword reminds us why this is such an important topic –
‘The rule of law is the basis of order and just conduct in our society. Without it people can have no trust in their institutions or the free associations they form with one another. Maintenance of the rule of law depends on the ability of all people to have basic equality of access to the law. If some cannot access justice because it is beyond their means, then the rule of law everywhere suffers.’
The report identifies a number of features that undermine this access. One, in particular, jumps off the page –
Fewer people can access financial support for a legal case
The decline in the availability of legal aid has been like a roller coaster in reverse! From a high of about 80% in the 1980s the numbers eligible had dropped to 29% by 2008. This then fell off a cliff in 2013 when LASPO saw the removal of whale swathes of work from scope – including housing, welfare and debt i.e. those affecting the most vulnerable. As a consequence it is virtually impossible for some to get early and effective legal advice and representation. This is starkly illustrated by benefits appeals. The success rate in appeals against findings that claimants were fit for work was about 80% in cases where claimants were represented. Most agencies can no longer give this support.
The Bach Commission report says that the number of not for profit legal advice centres fell from over 3200 in 2005 to about 1400 by 2015. Most agencies reported that they had to turn clients away due to lack resources or expertise.
The excuse of course is that times are tough, money is tight and we are all in it together. Interestingly CAB reports that for every £1 of legal aid spent on benefits the state saves £8.80. The report cites an example from the Mary Ward Legal Centre. The cuts in legal aid mean that early advice and help on the circumstances leading to possession proceedings is no longer feasible. People are not able to access advice until there is a court hearing by which time it is often too late.
It is right that this is described as a crisis. Something has to be done.
One thing we can do is provided evidence to the commission ahead of its final report in 2017.
We should also be relentless in highlighting injustice. If any readers of this blog want to mention specific areas of need please send brief details to - email@example.com
It is tempting to give up the struggle as the odds are stacked against those in need.
But we really have no alternative. If one person loses their home or income because they cannot access rights given by society then that is one person too many.