At the start of this month, the Labour Campaign for Human Rights launched a fresh push calling on the Labour Party commit to a fully-funded and reformed legal aid system. Led by Lord Falconer and Andy Slaughter MP, the new campaign is urging the party to adopt the recommendations of the Bach Commission on Access to Justice in full. It claims that Labour’s justice spokesperson Richard Burgon committed to legal aid reform last year but no further action has been taken since then.
Labour is often said not to have done enough on these crucial issues, despite justice being a key failure of this government. This lack of pressure – in addition to the Justice Secretary post previously being held by great Secretaries of State such as, er, Chris ‘Failing’ Grayling – has allowed the incumbent David Gauke to garner much praise. The bar has been set low so that this reputation for excellence merely required promotion of reforms that any sensible person might initiate, such as the abolition of jail sentences under six months.
For the reasons above, it is to be particularly celebrated that Jeremy Corbyn chose to focus on legal aid and access to justice at PMQs this afternoon. Nobody could disagree with Labour frontbencher Karl Turner’s tweeted statement: “It is disgusting that #Tory MPs think it’s funny that people are left without legal representation because that cannot afford to pay lawyers privately.” Just under a million people live in areas where there is zero access to legal aid, and legal aided matters in this country have fallen from over 900,000 to below 15,000 in 2018. With Richard Burgon sat beside him, these were the issues highlighted by the Labour leader today.
This is an issue that cuts across party lines, in that supporters especially of the Lib Dems are deeply concerned by the incredibly damaging effects of austerity on our legal system. And Corbyn was careful to put Vince Cable’s party in the firing line as well as the Tories. “The Tory-Lib Dem coalition slashed legal aid in 2013, and the results are clearly very unfair. The number of law centres and other not-for-profit legal aid providers has more than halved,” he stressed. “There are now legal aid deserts across the whole country.” The Prime Minister had nothing to say: to one question, she simply replied that Labour should have done more to tackle burning injustices when they were in power. The Tories have been in power since 2010, of course.
But, quickly enough, this session of PMQs collapsed into a back-and-forth about whose party was the most racist. In a classic deflection move, Theresa May said: “If the Rt Hon Gentleman is really interested in tackling injustice, then the biggest injustice he should tackle is in his own Labour Party and deal with antisemitism.” To which Corbyn replied: “My party is totally committed to eliminating racism in any form, anti-semitism in any form. And while she is about the lecturing, how about the investigation into Islamophobia in her own party?” There are constructive conversations to be had about both Labour antisemitism and Tory Islamophobia, but this was never going to be it. The racism accusations continued to fly, and ultimately dominated PMQs – to the detriment of highlighting our vital need for access to justice.