Sinead Lynch for The Times
Affordable legal help should be a statutory right that can be enforced in the courts, a Labour-backed commission will say today.
It claims that legal aid is in crisis with successive cuts having led to a two-tier system, leaving the poor without legal advice or representation.
The commission, chaired by Lord Bach, justice minister from 2008 to 2010, calls for a “Right to Justice Act” backed by an independent justice commission to monitor and ensure individuals’ rights.
Lord Bach’s report also urges the government to widen the scope of the legal aid scheme to ensure people have early legal advice and an understanding of the law. “We want to see many more people qualify for legal aid, including people who are in a position to pay part of their legal costs,” it says.
The means test for legal aid should be based on a simple assessment of gross household income, with the aim of “significantly increasing the number of households eligible”, it says.
The report also calls for everyone on means-tested benefit to automatically qualify for legal aid without further assessment. Assessments of capital for legal aid should be scrapped and the Legal Aid Agency replaced by an independent body.
“No person should be denied justice simply because they cannot afford it,” said Lord Bach, who has been the police and crime commissioner for Leicestershire since May last year. “We need a new act which defends and extends the right to justice, and we need a new body tasked with implementing it.
“The government must take urgent action to address the crisis in our justice system. This means broadening the scope of legal aid, reforming eligibility requirements and taking action to improve the public’s understanding of the law.”
The government must take urgent action to address the crisis in our justice system
The Fabian Society acted as the secretariat for the Bach Commission, which has heard from more than 100 individuals and organisations over the past two years.
When the government drastically reduced legal aid under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 it estimated that it would save £450 million a year in today’s prices. However, last year legal aid spending was £950 million less than in 2010, the commission says.
Labour’s shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, welcomed the report.
“Tens of thousands of people have been priced out of defending their rights in recent years as a result of swingeing Conservative government cuts in the justice sector that have hit the most vulnerable hardest,” he said.
“There is much to be welcomed in this pioneering report. I am particularly excited by the idea of a new legally enforceable right to justice that would guarantee access just as we have for healthcare and education.”
Burgon added that Labour would produce “detailed plans on how we will take forward Lord Bach’s recommendations in government, as part of our efforts to repair a justice system that is in crisis”.
He called on the government to “stop dragging its feet and get on with publishing its own delayed review into its legal aid changes. There is much in Lord Bach’s report that the government could implement ahead of the next election if it is serious about restoring access to justice.”