£400 million plan could revolutionise justice system
A long-awaited report into the impact of legal aid cuts has been released today. One of its authors, criminal barrister Andrew Keogh, has told Legal Cheek he’s “pretty confident” its recommendations will make it into law.
‘The Right To Justice’, a £450 million access to legal aid-boosting plan, has been devised by a commission chaired by Labour peer Lord Bach. Commission members, including Keogh, former Court of Appeal judge Sir Henry Brooke and children’s lawyer Andrea Davies, begin the report by reminding readers of the “crisis” in our justice system. Pointing the finger firmly at the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), the report states:
LASPO has removed much of civil law from the scope of legal aid, including key, and cost-effective, areas like early legal help for social welfare matters. Where legal aid remains, it is so tightly means tested that it is frequently out of reach for even those on modest incomes. Huge numbers of people facing a housing dispute or family breakdown have insufficient resources to afford private legal advice but are also deemed ineligible for legal aid.
Two of the the commission’s most central recommendations are: the codification of the right to justice into statute, and the inception of a Justice Commission to keep tabs on the protection of this legal right.
The report says the Justice Commission will consist of “a board of legal practitioners, public champions and other relevant experts” — vague language Legal Cheek pressed Keogh on. “It’s intentionally vague to ensure the board is diverse in experience and expertise,” he told us, pointing out the recent controversy about Sir Martin Moore-Bick and his suitability for the Grenfell inquiry. “You can stick me on a commission as a lawyer and I can do great things regarding the law,” Keogh said, “but I don’t know how it feels to be a woman suffering domestic violence.”
Aside from the proposed Right to Justice Act and Justice Commission, the report recommends, for example:
• Teaching children about legal rights in their schools.
• Reinstating the availability of legal aid for pre-litigation legal advice.
• Relaxing ‘gateway evidence’, making it easier for clients to prove domestic violence (a requisite for many family law legal aid applications).
• Scrapping the Legal Aid Agency in favour of a more independent body.
“If someone were to, with an open mind, go through each of these recommendations and consider them with evidence,” Keogh noted, “I think they’d find them very difficult to refute.”
Today has been a day of “knee-jerk” reaction to the lengthy report. But, with the likes of Labour shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon MP and Young Legal Aid Lawyers coming out in support, Keogh hopes it’s just a matter of time before Tory MPs follow suit. He said:
LASPO was a terrible mistake and the current government has to find a respectable way to step back from it (without admitting they were wrong because no one likes to do that). Though I’d be surprised if every single recommendation was made law, I am pretty confident the bulk of report will, eventually, find its way into statute.
The report, perhaps unintentionally but very symbolically, has been launched 100 days after the Grenfell Tower disaster. In the wake of the tragic fire, we reported the tower block’s residents had tried to obtain legal advice over safety concerns but were prevented from doing so due to devastating cuts to legal aid. The number of formally identified victims stands at 66.
— The Pileus (@thepileus) June 14, 2017
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