Legal aid cuts put justice “beyond the reach of thousands”, Burgon warns

Richard Burgon

Tory spending cuts have put justice “beyond the reach of thousands”, a shadow cabinet minister says today as a new report identifies a crisis in the system.

Richard Burgon said the repeated slashing of the legal aid budget was “unprecedented” as a commission by a former minister laid bare how the poorest people in society are being let down by the legal system.

Burgon, the shadow justice secretary, spoke out as the interim report from the Bach Commission on Access to Justice compiled by the Fabian Society, identified a series of problems around austerity, bureaucracy, ageing technology and the imposition of fees.

Today Burgon said he wants to see minimum standards given a basis in law.

“Since 2010, the Conservatives have implemented unprecedented cuts to legal aid – putting justice beyond the reach of thousands. There is much of substance in the report, which will be welcome to all those who value the principle of access to justice.

“I am particularly excited by the idea of enshrining in law a minimum standard for access to justice. A basic threshold for access to justice has the potential to be a historic advance in our law which could improve the lives of thousands.”

The report, The Crisis in the Justice System in England and Wales, outlines six core concerns and suggests future improvements, including the establishment of  a set of minimum standards, a reform of legal aid and the transformation of public legal education “in schools and throughout life”.

It said the solution to problems with access to justice could not simply be to reverse the cuts instituted by the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) but would come from a plan to “simplify the legal system, use new technologies, focus on the journey of the user through the system and build public support.”

Lord Bach, Labour peer and former parliamentary under-secretary of state to the ministry of justice, said the report showed that the UK justice system was “creaking at the seams” and that cuts instituted by LASPO had led to a system where the poorest in society can no longer receive the legal support they require.

“This unacceptable state of affairs needs challenging and changing. This report is the starting point in our ongoing work to redesign the justice system so that it works for all.”

Other issues highlighted by the report include a focus on how exceptional case funding has failed to deliver for those in need and the inadequacy of public legal education and legal advice.

The government launched its exceptional case funding (ECF) scheme in October 2013, to mitigate the effects of LASPO, but between October 2013 and June 2015 only eight children and 28 young adults were granted legal aid under it.

Furthermore, between 2005 and 2015, the number of not-for-profit legal advice centres fell by more than 50 per cent, from 3,226 to 1,462.

The report also highlighted how high court and tribunal fees are preventing people from pursuing legal claims, focusing on the 67 per cent drop in single cases between October 2013 and June 2014 after employment tribunal fees were introduced.

Other issues in focus looked at bureaucracy in the Legal Aid Agency, which had its administration budget increased by £2.1m last year, and out-of-date technologies keeping the justice system “wedded to the past”.

Earlier this month, Burgon urged justice secretary Liz Truss to speak out against the attacks by British tabloids on the judges involved in the High Court ruling against article 50.

You can read the Fabian’s full report here.

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