'Labour government would end 'denigration' of the judiciary’ - Shami Chakrabarti
Shami Chakrabarti pledged to end the “denigration” of the judiciary by politicians if Labour wins power at the next general election.
The Shadow Attorney General said the “humiliation and undermining” of the justice system would stop immediately under a Labour government after years of a “rather nasty rhetorical arms race”.
The barrister also called on members of the judiciary to ensure the profession is “more representative” of society.
She said: “I want to make a commitment that the next Labour government will be a very law friendly government, and a lawyer friendly government. The denigration and humiliation and undermining of public service lawyers, lawyers in general, the judiciary, it stops right here.
“I know that I can say that on behalf of Jeremy Corbyn and the entire Shadow Cabinet. There’s been a rather nasty rhetorical arms that’s been going on for too many years, and which my own colleagues will acknowledge is not unique to any one party. It stops right here.”
Baroness Chakrabarti was speaking at the Justice in the Modern Age fringe at Labour party conference, which ran in partnership with the Bar Council, the Law Society, Justice and the Society of Labour Lawyers.
Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon, Chair of the Bar Council Andrew Langdon QC, Vice President of the Law Society Christina Blacklaws and Justice director Andrea Coomber joined her on the panel.
Taking questions from the audience, Baroness Chakrabarti was asked whether she supported a written constitution in the UK to enshrine the principle of access to justice.
The Labour peer suggested there was no need for constitution at the present time due to the Human Rights Act, but indicated she would be willing to consider the matter in the future.
She said: “I think I’ve spent a lot of my adult life as a student of constitutional law. I still feel like a student. So, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
“But we’re possibly getting to a place where I think it may be broke, but I don’t think we should do it on the back of a fag packet. If you want to write a written constitution for the United Kingdom, you want it to last at least a few hundred years… so don’t do it in a partisan way on the back of a fag packet.
“We’ve got a few other things to do as a priority. So, things like House of Lords reform might be part of this, etcetera, etcetera. For the moment I will stick and not twist on our modern British Bill of Rights called the Human Rights Act.”
Turning to advances in technology, the Labour frontbencher recognised that developments could help improve areas such as gaining access to representation in the justice system.
But she added: “Make no mistake, there will never be a technological substitute for the courts, or for lawyers who literally have to hold people’s hands and sometimes the most vulnerable people in our country, and they’re not going to be fixed by a lawbot.”
“There will never be in my view, at least in my lifetime, a substitute for that person when you’re vulnerable and at your worst moment in your life, who can sit down with you and advise you and potentially represent you.”
‘WE HAVE FAILED’
Mr Langdon QC cited examples of where technology could help improve access to justice, such as the dispute resolution format used by auctions company, Ebay.
However he added: “Much more worrying, I think, is what technology is doing in relation to what’s happening at court. Some of that is essential and very sensible. So, protecting the vulnerable witnesses, protecting children, trying to cut down on some of the costs. That’s very sensible. What worries me is when technology becomes the guise or the disguise for closing courts.
“We need to speak plainly about that.”
Reviewing the state of the justice system, the Bar Council Chair said that leading figures in the profession had “failed” to convince consecutive governments of the case against budgetary cuts.
“The reason I say we’ve failed, is our Ministry of Justice, which occupies a very slender, slither of the pie in terms of budgetary expenditure by government, has reduced in size and scope and in the money allotted to it by about 34% in the last six years,” he said.
“So, we have been campaigning for investment in change, in legal aid, in courts and all of that, and the very opposite has been happening.”
Concluding his address, he said: “Our greater responsibility is to try to promote further up the agenda the need for a proper recognition of what’s going wrong and what’s going to happen if we don’t have proper, thorough reinvestment, not just in legal aid, but in the courts, in the judiciary, in the entire system of justice that we used to be very proud of."
Mr Burgon meanwhile said recommendations made in the Bach review, which said an additional £400m a year should be spent restoring access to legal aid, and the Lammy review, which looked into treatment of, and outcomes for, black, asian and minority ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system would be incorporated in the party’s next election manifesto.
He added: “We believe that legal aid should be seen as one of the four pillars of the welfare state. It’s because t’s not seen as that, that government’s finding it so easy to cut it.
“In terms of our next steps, the Bach review is an important piece of work, the Lammy review is a monumental piece of work, too. We’re going to make sure that they play a key role in Labour’s manifesto for the next general election, whenever that may be.
“We are going to be making very welcome announcements on legal aid in the autumn, about really expanding legal aid so we can be proud of our legal aid system in this country as well.”