Party report calls for ‘simpler and more generous’ system
LABOUR pledged yesterday to expand access to legal aid after a report commissioned by leader Jeremy Corbyn called for a “significantly simpler and more generous” scheme.
The Bach commission — a panel of legal experts chaired by Labour former justice minister Willy Bach — said the system in England and Wales was “in crisis” as a result of cuts to legal aid implemented by the Tory government.
It found that the cuts had been much deeper than originally set out by ministers.
In its latest report, published today, the commission called for the creation of a new legally enforceable “right to justice,” guaranteeing people “reasonable legal assistance” without incurring costs they cannot afford.
“Most immediately, people are being denied access to justice because the scope of legal aid has been dramatically reduced and eligibility requirements made excessively stringent,” the report states.
It also recommended that anyone receiving a means-tested benefit should automatically receive legal aid.
The commission’s interim report, published in November last year, warned that the Tories’ 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act had deprived hundreds of thousands of people from accessing legal support.
Lord Bach said: “No person should be denied justice simply because they cannot afford it.
“We need a new Act which defends and extends the right to justice.”
The Act removed many areas of law from legal aid, with the Tories expecting to cut spending by £450 million a year after adjusting for inflation.
But figures from last year showed that they had slashed legal aid by more than double that, with spending last year down £950m on 2010.
The number of law firms in England and Wales dealing with legal aid cases has dropped by 20 per cent in the last five years — from 2,991 to 2,393 — latest figures show.
Human rights charity Amnesty International accused the government of creating a “two-tier” justice system that separates those who can afford to pay hefty fees with those who cannot.
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said it was time for the government to “stop dragging its feet and publish its own delayed review into its legal aid changes.”
He said Labour would present detailed plans on how it would implement the recommendations of the Bach commission when in government.
But he said there is much in the report that the government could act on now “if it is serious about restoring access to justice.”