A former lord chief justice called on politicians to back the recommendations of the Low Commission which last week made the case for an extra £100m to ensure “a basic level of provision” of advice in its final report.
“There have been plenty of reports about those at the highest level of the justice system,” said Lord Woolf, author of the Access to Justice report in 1996, at the launch of the report at the House of Commons on Monday night. “This is a report about the people at the lowest level who really do need the most help.”
The judge noted that his own landmark report, which led to the implementation of the civil procedure rules, was written at a time “when there was no suggestion there were going to be any cuts to legal aid”. “Only after I gave my report did it become apparent it was going to be undermined,” he said; adding that “exactly what happened” to Lord Justice Jackson’s recent report into civil litigation “happened to me”.
“On an individual basis the needs of each individual is, in financial terms, tiny and even if you are looking at the matter collectively, the financial sums that are being talked about are not great. However the effect of carrying out the recommendations in this report could be transforming. They could be dramatic and make a huge difference to so many.”
Woolf finished with “a plea”: “If the resources are short – and I fully accept that they are short – then the issue for the government is how they are going to deploy the resources that are available,” he said. “There is an overwhelming need to deploy resources at this level. It is my belief that deploying those resources will actually save money.”
Andy Slaughter, shadow justice minister, was fulsome in his praise for the work of the Low Commission and joked that his government would be “plagiarising without acknowledgement”. “It says that we are not going back,” Slaughter said. “We are looking forward to other ways, whether it’s “polluter pays”, or whether it’s education, or selective restoration of [legal aid] funding. It looks at the demanding climate we are in, and I think that will be the lasting legacy of this report.”
The report’s author Lord Colin Low explained why his commission resisted making the case for arguing for a reinstatement of the scheme effectively demolished by LASPO last April.
“We reckon £89 million a year has been taken out of legal aid for social welfare law and at least a further £40 million will have gone from local authority funding for legal support by 2015. As a result services are closing or retrenching on a significant scale.”
The peer went on to reflect that his commission was “under pressure to recommend a simple reinstatement of cuts from two sources”: “lawyers, obviously” who “thought our recommendations were too front-loaded and insufficiently recognised the importance of legal input” in resolving social welfare law problems as well as from those “who resist changes in patterns of funding for public services”. “We took the view that it was important to tackle the whole sector in an integrated fashion and that legal aid shouldn’t be seen in isolation as a standalone funding mechanism,” he said.
Low stressed that he did “not underestimate the importance of legal interventions”. “Sometimes it takes a lawyer to bring a recalcitrant defendant to the table.” However the peer also recalled talking to a firm of solicitors who told told him that as a result of the LASPO cuts they would be able to handle 300 fewer cases a year. “Down the road we found a CAB that was dealing with over 30,000 cases a year,” he added.
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