“The justice system is going through a period of unprecedented change” stated the Law Society president Jonathan Smithers at the Society of Labour Lawyers event in Brighton, adding that there had been no proper assessment of the recent changes to the justice system.
He welcomed the new review on legal aid, but stressed how inequality in the justice system was a major issue. The Lord Chancellor should be encouraged not to “forget 800 years of history” in its proposals to the system, he said.
With a further 25-40% cuts expected in the Chancellor’s upcoming spending review, Shadow Attorney General Catherine McKinnell agreed that the ability for the justice service to be overseen effectively was being undermined.
There were also “serious questions” around the legality of various pieces of the Government’s legislative agenda, she noted, including the Extremism Bill, the Trade Union Bill and scrapping of the Human Rights Act.
Shadow Justice Secretary Lord Falconer echoed his concerns about the latter. The human rights settlement “must be protected”, he said. Whilst the Government argued that its proposed Bill of Rights would adequately replace the current Human Rights Act, it would instead be led by popular opinion, Lord Falconer argued, which was not what human rights were for.
Speaking of those that relied on the justice system, Lord Falconer said a “series of fundamental attacks” were being faced by those depending on the justice system. The combination of attacks on both legal aid and advice services generally, as well as escalating fees and delays in the courts were resulting in serious threats to the sector, he argued.
“Our society will be changed” by the Government’s plans for the justice sector being enacted unchallenged, he added, “and it will be changed forever for the worse.”
“We are a country that has always played by the rules, and the rules are there not just for the rich and the powerful but for everybody. If the poor and vulnerable cannot have access to the courts and advice, you might as well not bother making changes to the rules.”
“People now can’t get legal advice or representation in things that most affect their lives” he said.
“It is absolutely scandalous.”
Alistair MacDonald, chairman of the Bar Council emphasised the issues with the current arrangements.
The sort of people who were being affected by the Government’s legal aid changes were vulnerable people who had no voice in society, he said. “This is not a problem that’s going away; it may be beneath the surface, but it is still there.”
Criminal courts charge, which a magistrate in the audience labelled as both “nonsensical” and “evil”, noting an occasion when someone had received a £150 fine for begging. Lord Falconer agreed this was leading to gross disproportionality within the system.
Smithers echoed these concerns, saying such injustices had to continue to be flagged up, crucially by using specific cases as hard evidence. “It is a service; it is not to make money” said MacDonald, deploring the commoditisation of the legal services:
“Let’s not treat justice as a commodity; let’s treat it as a fundamental part of a free society.”
Speaking from the audience, Shadow Justice Minister Lord Beecham appealed for those in the justice sector to send him specific examples of where the system was falling short.
Labour peer Lord Bach, who was recently appointed by Lord Falconer to conduct a review into legal aid for the Labour Party, said the party had not offered the British public enough on legal aid at the general election. He noted how new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had chaired the APPG on legal aid during the last parliament.
The specific scope of the review would include criminal and civil legal aid as it affected family law and social welfare law, he confirmed, adding that it was yet to be determined whether it would be wider in scope than this.
The panel agreed there was a real issue around the public understanding of what value lawyers brought to a situation, with Lord Falconer noting the legal sector’s issue with much of the public assuming lawyers were simply upset about their fees being reduced.
MacDonald agreed that communication of the issues to the public was key, with McKinnell noting how the justice sector tended to be insular with its issues; everyone in the industry knew the problems it was facing, but these were not effectively communicated to those outside the sector.
The best way to increase public understanding and support was to bring specific examples of the system failing, Lord Falconer emphasised:
“People want to hear about these stories.”