‘We in the Labour party are aware that austerity is needed,’ said Emily Thornberry MP to the Labour Party Conference in Brighton on Monday evening. ‘But this is an ill-judged programme of reform.’ Report by Mary-Rachel McCabe.
The shadow attorney general was speaking at a panel discussion organised by the Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group (LAPG), entitled ‘Legal Aid in Crisis: What should Labour do?’ She was joined on the panel by the Labour peer and former justice minister Lord Willy Bach, Director of the Legal Action Group (LAG) Steve Hynes, and Paul Bowen QC, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. The meeting was chaired by LAPG Director, Carol Storer.
A former barrister at Tooks chambers, Thornberry lamented the closure of the ‘exceptional set’: ‘We were the chambers of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Lawrence family…and we have closed because of the legal aid cuts.’ ‘But this isn’t just about lawyers,’ added the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury. ‘The legal aid system has to begin with the vulnerable; ensuring people get a voice and access to justice, and ensuring that our legal system contains the checks and balances that we need in a democratic society.’
Thornberry, speaking to a packed conference suite in a Brighton seafront hotel, criticised the government for the ideological nature of the cuts it has introduced – and in particular ‘the attack on judicial review’.
‘The government doesn’t want to be held accountable in the courts so they’re making it harder for people to judicially review them. Nobody wants to be judicially reviewed, but it goes with the territory. It’s important for people to be able to hold the government to account in the courts.’
Emily Thornberry MP
Thornberry expressed concern about the increasing demand being placed on MPs to assist their constituents with legal problems as a result of the lack of free advice available. ‘I find myself writing out people’s cases so that they can take it to a judge and hand it to them,’ said the former barrister. ‘But people who don’t have MPs who were once lawyers will suffer.’
The shadow attorney general concluded by warning that, should Labour be elected in 2015, ‘there won’t be a lot of money around’ and so the party would ‘have to be careful about what we spend our money on.‘
‘Destroying Legal Aid’
Paul Bowen QC, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, echoed Emily Thornberry’s concerns regarding the government’s proposals to curtail the use of judicial review. Referring to the title of Grayling’s ‘Transforming Legal Aid’ consultation as ‘laughable’, Bowen labelled the cuts to judicial review ‘an attack on one of our deepest constitutional principles – the rule of law’.
The silk – who specialises in public law and human rights – told the Labour Party Conference that judicial review creates a culture of ‘transparency and accountability’ and whilst ‘this may occasionally anger or discomfort ministers, it is fundamental to the operation of a democracy.’ He added that the only way everyone in society – regardless of means – can hold the government to account is through judicial review, and the only way many people can access this mechanism is through legal aid.
‘Since its introduction in 1949, legal aid has allowed poor and vulnerable people to have genuine access to justice, approximating in some sense to that which wealthy people have .’
Paul Bowen QC
Lord Willy Bach was characteristically damning of the government’s decimation of the legal aid system, describing the cuts as ‘deeply offensive’, ‘deceitful’, ‘monstrous’ and ‘wicked’. ‘A large number of people are not getting the legal advice that they would have got if LASPO had not been implemented,’ said Lord Bach. Even in areas where legal aid is still available, said the Labour peer, people are not seeking advice because they are unclear about what is in scope and what isn’t.
The former minister for legal aid referred to ‘a perfect storm brewing’ at the hands of the coalition government, as a result of relentless cuts to legal aid combined with widespread reform of the benefits system. He slated the government for the ‘lies, deception and broken promises’ it used to ‘force LASPO’ through Parliament. ‘We’re not prepared to move on and forget this disgrace,’ said the Labour peer, before concluding with a quote from George Orwell:
‘“Whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time.”…I have no hesitation in saying that in this area, the present government has been both wicked and stupid. And it’s our job to put it right.’
A people issue
The legal aid cuts ‘are very much a Labour issue’, Steve Hynes, director of the legal charity LAG told the conference. ‘What your party stands for equates with equality before the law,’ he said. ‘No matter what your status or income, in this society you should have access to justice. You should be equal to a Russian oligarch.’
Hynes spoke about the Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support and said that the Commission will be bringing recommendations to all of the political parties in the run-up to the next election and asking for their response. ‘We will produce a lot of evidence to show that every one pound spent on legal aid saves the state five to seven pounds in other areas.’
Hynes expressed his incredulity at the operation of the ‘exceptional cases rule’ – one of the compromises won by the Liberal Democrats when LASPO was being debated. ‘They predicted that the rule would catch around 5-7,000 cases per year,‘ said Hynes. ‘We were told it would be a human rights safety net.’ In reality, 20 cases have been brought under the rule since April, with ‘bureaucratic hurdles’ and ‘a misunderstanding of the rules’ to blame, according to Hynes.
The LAG director concluded: ‘Civil legal aid is not a Lefty issue; it is not a lawyer issue. It’s a people issue. Equality before the law and access to justice are values that we all believe are important. If Labour are elected in 2015, we’ll be asking them to ensure those values are put into action.’
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