‘Wicked’ is the word that Lord Bach returns to in relation to the legal aid Bill. Taking social welfare law out was ‘a wicked thing to have done’, says the peer who has led the opposition attack on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in the House of Lords.
‘It is an attack on poor people, the vulnerable and disabled: the people who cannot answer back,’ he says. ‘It is wicked, mean and verging on the unconstitutional because without advice and the ability to get advice, there is no justice for these people.’ The legislation puts ‘Britain back at least 25 years’, he says.
Lord Bach is talking to LegalVoice within minutes of LASPO completing its journey through the parliament. Next stop is Royal Assent. Few would disagree that the former Labour justice secretary has lived up to the promise of his Twitter handle (@Fightbach). The peer now plans to stand down from the front bench and, no doubt, many hope that a vital ally continues to fight now that LASPO is on the statute books.
‘I would have done it a few months ago, but I was determined to see this Bill through parliament,’ he says. ‘I’m only sorry we couldn’t have done more.’ He calls himself ‘a late convert to social welfare law’. ‘When I practised at the criminal legal aid Bar I knew precious little of the work that law centres, Citizens Advice Bureaux and other advice agencies did,’ he says. His time as justice secretary under New Labour – and in particular being given ‘a really hard time by delegates of the Law Centre Federation AGM in Birmingham one Saturday morning after having lost my mobile’ – made him understand the role of social welfare law.
A bad bill
The Bill received a kicking in the Lords – defeated on 11 occasions – but ultimately ministers have pressed on with pretty minimal changes to legislation, which represents the biggest shake-up in publicly-funded law in over 60 years. Lord Bach cites the contribution of fellow barrister Lord David Pannick who argued on LASPO’s last day that the Bill had been made ‘marginally better’ by amendments and it would have been ‘marginally better’ still had Pannick’s own amendment been accepted. It remained ‘a bad Bill’, Pannick told his fellow Peers.
‘I will be less polite than he was,’ Lord Bach told his fellow peers last week. ‘There are parts of Part 1 of the Bill – the bits that destroy social welfare law – that are not just bad but actually wicked; and I choose that word with great care. They are wicked because they set this country back from the position it was in.’
Not easily forgiven
So where are we now? It is ‘a big, big moment’, the peer replies. ‘It comes after lots and lots of struggle in the House of Commons where nothing has been given away by this Government at all,’ he replies.
Changes have made in the House of Lords but, the peer says, ‘they have been forced upon the government and I’m afraid the Liberal Democrats have breached all their previous beliefs.’ Bach insists that the Lords ‘hated the Bill – even those that voted for it did not like it’. ‘If the Lib Dems stand for anything, then they stand for a decent legal aid system,’ he says; adding that instead ‘they just stood on their heads and voted for the abolition of social welfare law’. ‘They had the chance to vote against it and they voted for it. They will not be easily forgiven.’
The peer acknowledges some genuine concessions however believes on the whole that they were ‘phony’. ‘They are matters that should never have been in the Bill in the first place,’ he says. Most controversial of all perhaps, were the provisions around domestic violence. LASPO makes domestic violence a precondition for legal aid for anyone needing publicly funded private family law advice. Key amendments were made during its passage through the Lords relating to the definition of ‘domestic violence’ (it now more accurately reflects that used by the Association of Chief Police Officers); and a broader range of evidence will now be accepted.
If the Bill had been ‘properly drafted in the first place’ there would not have been any need for amendments, he continues. The fact that the concessions were only achieved in the House of Lords was ‘staggering’, he adds.
Not only is the Bill, ‘wicked’, ‘mean’ and ‘verging on the unconstitutional’, but also ‘financially is absurd’, insists Lord Bach. ‘The few million quid saved by the Ministry of Justice will be completely overturned by the fact that these everyday problems will get worse and the state will have to intervene eventually in order to pick up the pieces.’ Everybody agrees that early advice means that the tribunals and courts are not ‘clogged up with hopeless cases’.
‘Matters can get resolved before they ever get near tribunals. Our system, although not perfect, has worked well and has given a legal service to most vulnerable in the country. The government has chosen to throw that away at the worst possible time: when we are living in a period of austerity during a period of radical welfare reforms. It will not save money and it will pick on the poor.’
So where next? The not-for-profit organisations ‘have done a great job and need to do anything they can do now to protect themselves from the dark years that are going to come’, says Lord Bach. ‘Every effort must be made by them to try and survive. Obviously some will fall by the way – that will be the government’s fault.’
Bach says that it is ‘important and vital’ for his own party to ‘think through a policy on social welfare law so that this savaging can never happen again’.
Does he think the Labour Party actually accepts the case for a fully-funded system of social welfare law anyway? ‘My own view is that we certainly ought to,’ he replies; adding that he thinks they do ‘in the sense that we didn’t cut social welfare law at the time that we were cutting other parts of the legal aid system in the last few years of our time in government’. ‘We believe social welfare law had to be protected and we actually did that and in my view we will have to do that in the future too.’
- Privacy Notice - 25th May 2018
- Five years after the riots – and not a single lesson learned - 28th June 2016
- EVENT: Working in Partnerships and Health - 4th March 2014
- ‘LASPO survival’ conference: book now - 31st May 2013
- On PCT - 22nd May 2013
- Ministers ‘out of touch with voters’ on legal aid - 21st May 2013
- May 22: ‘Justice for sale’ rally - 15th May 2013
- £67m worth of awards through transition fund - 15th May 2013
- LALY 2013 shortlist announced - 15th May 2013
- Truckload of trouble - 2nd May 2013