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Labour peers warn: Our system of justice is failing the electorate

Anastasia Zawierucha | Bar Council

4 min read Partner content

At a Labour Party fringe event this week, Sir Keir Starmer QC MP, Lord Falconer, and Baroness Chakrabarti discussed the impact of austerity on the UK’s justice system.

The justice system is failing people – and it is putting society at risk.

This was the theme of a highly charged fringe event, hosted by the Bar Council, the Society of Labour Lawyers and JUSTICE, at the Labour conference.

“Austerity, in simple terms, has taken its toll on justice,” said Chairman of the Bar Council Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC.

The consequences of the persistent and continuous austerity cuts has been a complete lack of sufficient investment in our justice system, she warned.

Former justice minister, Lord Falconer, agreed saying that a potent combination of higher court fees and cuts to legal aid have put this “cornerstone of society” at risk.

The increase in court fees is stopping individuals and small businesses from accessing the courts, warned the panel.

The Chairman of the Bar expressed concern that the fees no longer exist to cover the cost of the individual; rather, they are acting as a subsidy for the justice system as a whole.

Lord Falconer pointed to the irony of the situation, arguing that preventing small businesses from pursuing small civil claims hurts our economy – something the austerity cuts claim to protect.

He continued, “It is absolute poppycock to say that the cuts need to be made in order to preserve the economy of the nation, because the amount of money involved is absolutely tiny.”

Andrea Coomber, Director of JUSTICE, said it is not just small businesses being hurt by enhanced court fees. Ten days ago, asylum and tribunal fees went up 500%, she warned.

“The effect of this on the most vulnerable people in our country is really quite shocking.”

Additionally troubling for the panel were the continuous cuts to legal aid, which they said have created a huge increase in the number of people forced to represent themselves in court.

Accessing justice with representation, allowing the weak to protect themselves, “is a cornerstone of what makes our society work,” the Chairman of the Bar reminded the panel.

Lord Falconer pointed to relationship breakdown as an example of the impacts of the cuts. “Now 60% of divorces are settled without representation,” he said, and while some can be done amicably, others can result in settlements which reflect the stress and bullying of the relationship.

He summed up the problem saying, “The whole point of a justice system is it allows the weaker party to be protected by a legal system. And if you can’t get legal representation, the whole point of the justice system is lost.”

Keir Starmer MP agreed the costs were having a detrimental effect on the judicial system.

But, how did we get to this point?

“Justice has not always done a good job of arguing for the importance of legal aid” said Baroness Chakrabarti.

“The Labour party is not blameless in this regard, as even when the party was in power the negative rhetoric and attacks on the legal profession started a ball rolling that we are still dealing with today.”

“Political groups present legal aid as putting money into the pockets of ‘fat cat lawyers’ and we, as a legal profession, have not done a good job exposing that myth and explaining that legal aid is a vital public service.”

Legal aid is a part of the post-war settlement to protect the vulnerable, just as much as the NHS or universal education, she said, and it needs to be viewed as such by politicians and citizens.

The justice system is facing an existential crisis, warned Coomber.

“Who is the justice system for? Increasingly the Government seems to think that the courts are for people who use them – that’s what the criminal court charges are all about. We need to combat this narrative, because everyone benefits from a functioning justice system.”

The Chairman of the Bar Council said the first step to combating the negative narrative is a campaign of public legal education.

“We need to persuade people that justice matters. And the reason we need to do that is that we need to persuade them to continue to invest in justice.”

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