Ministers should increase state funding for early legal advice in some civil law cases, one of the government’s senior law officers told the Conservative Party conference.
Robert Buckland, QC, the solicitor-general, said that his personal view was “that the criteria applied by the Legal Aid Agency has been too restrictive and I think that is wrong. There is unfairness that needs to be addressed.”
Speaking to a fringe meeting at the conference, Buckland said he hoped that the forthcoming results of a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) would result in increased funding.
Legal aid lawyers have criticised the legislation for curtailing eligibility for civil legal aid. And the solicitor-general gave a strong indication that he sympathised with the argument that reducing access to initial advice was a false economy because early intervention could prevent more costly problems in the future.
Buckland dismissed the main recommendation of the recent Bach report, which called for the creation of a statutory right to access to justice for the public that would mirror access to health services. “That sounds good and makes for a good headline, but it won’t work,” he said.
However, Buckland acknowledged that little separated his views from those in the report concerning early advice. “There is a strong case for a significant increase in funding for early advice legal aid. That should be looked at again and there is definitely some common ground between us and Bach in that area,” he said.
Buckland’s comments were partially echoed by the lord chancellor, David Lidington, who was speaking at another Society of Conservative Lawyers event in Manchester. Lidington also indicated that early advice funding would be given serious consideration in the Ministry of Justice review of the legislation.
Lidington’s remarks were cautiously welcomed by legal profession leaders. Andrew Langdon, QC, chairman of the Bar Council, the body that represents barristers in England and Wales, said that he was encouraged by the comments from the lord chancellor and solicitor-general. “Waiting for the review of LASPO has been a bit like waiting for Godot,” he said.
Liz who? Ex-lord chancellor got it wrong over judges, hint Tory MPs
Conservative party lawyer MPs rushed to distance themselves from Liz Truss, David Lidington’s predecessor as lord chancellor who was reshuffled to the role of chief secretary to the treasury in June.
Truss was pilloried by many in the legal profession during the Brexit Article 50 litigation earlier this year, when she was seen as slow to defend judges who had given rulings that were unpopular with sections of the media.
“A prompt and robust response is always the best way to deal with unfair and ill-informed criticism of the judiciary,” Robert Buckland, QC, the solicitor-general, told a conference fringe meeting.
“Politicians must go into bat for judges,” agreed Alex Chalk, the barrister MP for Cheltenham. “And judges must explain better to the public what they do.”
Buckland picked up on that latter theme, saying: “The problem for the judges is that they cannot easily answer or respond to criticism. They are also naturally reluctant to get involved in public debate. And there should be no need for them to do so.”
However, Buckland said would encourage judges to be more communicative with the public. In an ironic echoing of statements earlier this year from Truss, he said: “Here in Manchester there is a large court centre. And it is open for judges to demystify the role of the judiciary and to let the public in on the secret of what it means to be a judge.”