Wednesday 3 January 2018

Access to Justice – time for politicians to listen

Following the Government’s release in December of its generally positive response to David Lamy MP’s hard-hitting review into the treatment of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals in the criminal justice system, it is high time for politicians of all parties to look carefully at the recent report of the Bach Commission on the closely related issue of Access to Justice. As part of the 34% cut in the budget of the Justice Department imposed by the Conservative/Lib Dem Government of 2010 to 2015, eligibility requirements were tightened and spending on legal aid reduced by £950 million. These changes have led to large numbers of vulnerable people being denied access to justice, and to the future viability of the whole legal aid system being called in question.

After extensive research and analysis, former Labour Justice Minister Lord Bach and his colleagues, working with the Fabian Society, have come up with a series of well-focused recommendations, leading with a call for an enforceable right to justice to be enshrined in a Right to Justice Act. This would give individuals a right to receive legal assistance without costs they cannot afford and would be enforced by a new Justice Commission. Under Lord Bach’s proposals, eligibility rules would be reformed to guarantee access to legal aid for all benefits recipients. All cases involving children would once again become eligible, as would cases involving certain areas of family and immigration law.

These two reports highlight both how far we still are from making a reality of equality before the law and access to justice for all in this country and how the situation has deteriorated in recent years. The far-reaching reforms that are needed to address these fundamental issues will take time and require significant funding, but without them the principles which should define our justice system will continue to appear little more than hypocrisy to a significant and increasingly alienated section of the population.