Richard Burgon: We cannot stand by while this government threatens to take British justice backwards
Labour will devise a justice system that truly does work for all, writes Richard Burgon
Our justice system is in crisis. Our prisons are rife with drugs and violence; our probation service is now profit-driven; our courts are being closed at an eye-watering rate; and ordinary people are being denied justice in their thousands because of legal aid cuts.
Labour believes in access to justice for all. That is why the 1945 Labour Government introduced legal aid to ‘open the doors of the courts freely to all persons who may wish to avail themselves of British justice without regard to the question of their wealth or ability to pay’.
However, in the last six years successive Conservative Justice Secretaries have shown in England and Wales that they care little for this fundamental principle of the law.
They have killed off social welfare law, meaning thousands have no support for problems with community care, debt, employment, housing and welfare benefits.
We have seen the Ministry of Justice budget cut by around 34%. It is not possible to cut so deeply without there being significant consequences. The Crown Prosecution Service too has seen massive cuts to its resources leading some lawyers to claim it is close to collapse.
In prisons, the population has crept up to over 85,000 but spending cuts mean there are now 7,000 fewer prison officers in place. With prisoners facing longer hours locked up and prison education and rehabilitation facilities cut, violent attacks and drug use are up.
The only suggestions we have seen to deal with this are to trial a small number of ‘reform prisons’ where a Governor has greater powers over an insufficient budget – yet the Bill to deliver them is now in doubt.
For those leaving detention, as a result of privatisation there are now numerous privately contracted Community Rehabilitation Companies operating probation services.
Local justice is becoming extinct owing to the government’s programme of court closures. The effect is that people have to travel far outside their local area to attend court. Some courts are increasingly using video-link hearings so people need not attend in person. But in some areas that increased use has not been met with increased capacity, causing further frustration for all involved.
The courts have also seen a rise in people representing themselves. That too has its consequences. Many will pursue cases they might not have done had they had legal advice at an early stage. When they do appear in court, hearings are inevitably far longer than they would be if they were conducted by lawyers. Many seeking justice are dissuaded by extortionate Employment Tribunal and divorce petition fees.
While all the time restricting access to justice for people of limited means, the government thinks nothing of promoting England as the forum of choice for those litigating international disputes. The message is clear: our courts are open to those with the money to pay.
The new Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, appeared before the Justice Committee for the first time in September. The committee put all these concerns and more to her but she offered no new solutions. Truss set out her three priorities: prison reform; making a justice system that works for all; and a British Bill of Rights.
The Justice Secretary could not explain why it was necessary to scrap the Human Rights Act if, as the Prime Minister recently confirmed, there are no plans to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.
The political reality is that the HRA is a lightning conductor for the hard-right of the Conservative Party. Scrapping it is about internal Conservative Party games. It was a Labour Government that introduced the act and incorporated Convention rights in order to “bring rights home” for the people of Britain. We cannot stand by whilst Liz Truss threatens to take Britain backwards.
In the year ahead I will be working hard to defend the Human Rights Act against this pointless attack because human rights are for everyone. Labour is working hard to devise a justice system that truly does work for all. One of Jeremy Corbyn’s first acts as leader of our party was to set up the Bach Commission on Access to Justice. In the year ahead Lord Bach will be overseeing important work and in due course will report on his findings. We bear a heavy responsibility to oppose what this government is doing and to set out to the country how we will undo the damage and restore access to justice.
Richard Burgon is Labour MP for Leeds East and Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice