Beside the seaside: Are justice issues making a comeback?

In the first of series of three round-ups on how high legal aid and access to justice issues are on the party conference agendas, James Sandbach, director of policy and external affairs at LawWorks, kicks off with a view from the Liberal Democrat pow wow in Bournemouth

This year’s party conferences take place in a peculiar context and in peculiar times justice often gets squeezed out as an issue of policy and debate on the party conference circuit.  But it may be making a comeback, especially given that a government review of legal aid policy is expected.

I’ve just returned from the LibDem conference in Bournemouth where there were four fringe meetings on access to justice organised through the Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association (now called Rights-Liberties-Justice); one meeting on pro bono, one on legal aid cuts, one sponsored by the SRA on how solicitors can better support vulnerable clients, and one meeting organised with JUSTICE on the general theme of ‘Justice in the Modern Age’ covering court modernisation and other challenges. The Law Society also sponsored some of the meetings – promoting their recent work (ACCESS DENIED? LASPO four years on: a Law Society review).

However, tellingly there was no set-piece debate on justice issues in the main conference agenda and debates which were heavy on Brexit, environmental and housing issues. To find the Party’s formal position on legal aid you have go back to last year’s conference which passed a motion on ‘restoring access to justice. Given their somersault of political fortunes though and difficulties in defending the coalition record, conference motions and discussions on the Lib Dem fringe don’t exactly carry very far in today’s political weather, though they may become a part of a cross party dialogue on the issue.

We can expect the Law Society and SRA to be more active at all the party conferences – with the Law Society promoting a cross-party approach to challenging LASPO, and it is good to see the SRA as the regulator carrying a positive messages about access to justice.

More eagerly anticipated though is the Fabian Society Access to Justice Commission’s final report which will be formally launched at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton. The Commission, chaired by Lord Bach (aka ‘the Bach Commission’) has operated semi-independently from the Labour Party, though is expected to form the bones of the approach that the shadow justice team will pursue.

As far as possible it tries to reach out to others with the idea of a set of consensus ‘minimum standards’ for the state’s duty on access to justice. However, as ever it is the party in government that holds the ring – and the funding keys – so the conference season will also be used to ask questions of the government and the new MoJ ministers about the future of the justice system, the process and plan for a review of the legal reforms/cuts, and the response to Grenfell and other broader justice issues.

So a conference journey starting in Bournemouth with regretful Lib Dems and their spokesman Lord Marks calling for the legal aid review to get underway, will end in Manchester where the Conservative Party fringe guide features the justice select committee chair Bob Neill MP doing a round of meetings with titles like ‘A fair, accessible legal system – what price civil justice? Join us to discuss the components of a fair and accessible civil justice system, including whether, when and how individuals should be expected to pay for that access.’

What price indeed when public policy continues to exclude so much demonstrable and proven unmet legal needs from the scope of the legal aid system?

There are 1 comments

  1. Justice does indeed seem to be on the agenda. It is not just the civil justice issues that are so important to providers of what remains of civil legal aid and providers of advice on social welfare issues, but a general feeling that “people won’t just take what is offered and accept it”. There has been an upsurge of activity over the last 12 months in particular that suggests that if people get off their proverbials things can and will change. This is a more general demand for fairness and justice. The Lammy Report, the Bach Commission and events that highlight gross inequality and lack of voice such as Grenfell are potential catalysts for change and hopefully justice for all.


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