YLAL debate: Access to justice after the election
What do the next five years hold for legal aid? There is unlikely to be much focus on this subject during the general election campaign, but in an attempt to redress the balance, Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) held a pre-election debate on access to justice in London last week.
Garden Court Chambers hosted Access to Justice After the Election, a YLAL panel debate featuring lawyer-politician representatives of the main parties standing. Unlike last night’s ITV debate, we were delighted to have Conservative and Labour speakers on our panel, which included three prospective parliamentary candidates and two silks.
Representing Theresa May’s team (the party formerly known as the Conservatives) was the strong and stable Mark Trafford QC, a common law and criminal barrister from 23 Essex Street and a newly-selected parliamentary candidate for Bradford East. In the red corner, for the many not the few, was Catherine Atkinson of 9 Gough Square, the secretary of the Society of Labour Lawyers who is looking to overturn a 3,000 majority in Erewash, Derbyshire.
The odd one out of the panel as the only speaker not vying for election on 8 June was Alistair Webster QC, past chair of the Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association and a silk at Lincoln House Chambers. Our red, blue, yellow and green dream team was completed by the Justice spokesperson of the Green Party and their candidate for North Somerset, Queen Square Chambers barrister Charley Pattison. The debate was expertly chaired by another barrister, outgoing YLAL co-chair Rachel Francis.
We invited each of the speakers to make an initial pitch for their respective parties’ policies on access to justice, prior to opening the debate up for questions from the floor. First up was Charley Pattison, whose party went into the last election with a crowd-pleasing (in this room at least) pledge to reverse the Coalition government’s cuts to legal aid. She told the audience that many vulnerable people are being denied access to justice as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), and confirmed that the Green Party’s promise to reverse the legal aid cuts still stands. The Green Party would make equality before the law a fundamental right.
Mark Trafford QC informed us that his recent selection as a parliamentary candidate meant he was constrained in what he could say, particularly prior to the publication of the Conservative manifesto (perhaps he needn’t have worried, given how little it says about legal aid). He advised the audience of aspiring and junior lawyers not to be dissuaded by those who caution against working in legal aid, and said that reform of access to justice needs to focus on modernisation and digitisation as the overall ‘envelope’ of legal aid spending is, in his view, unlikely to change.
Catherine Atkinson said the public has a clear choice ‘between a Labour government and a Conservative government – between a government that believes in access to justice and one that slashes it’. Criticising the Coalition government’s cuts to legal aid, she said we now have a two-tier system. Labour, she said, will commit to increase spending on legal aid, which it sees as the fourth pillar of the welfare state; it will ensure minimum standards for access to justice and repeal employment tribunal fees.
The final opening pitch was delivered by Alistair Webster QC, who said that Liberal Democrat lawyers stand for ‘rights, liberties and justice’. He recognised that access to justice is decreasing for everyone apart from wealthy companies in commercial disputes, and accepted that his own party’s record in government was not good (he later described the Liberal Democrats in Coalition as ‘prisoners on a bus being driven by someone else’). Webster did not accept Mark Trafford’s contention that there is a fixed ‘envelope’ of spending for legal aid, but argued that alternative funding models for litigation should be explored.
A YLAL member in the audience asked the panel whether their parties would commit to reviewing the impact of LASPO, as the Coalition government promised to do and as the Conservative government was beginning to do before the general election was called. Alistair Webster said that Lib Dem policy is for a thorough review of LASPO, ‘although we already know it is a destructive piece of legislation’.
Catherine Atkinson agreed and said Labour will bring forward an evidence-based policy following the final report of the Bach Commission on Access to Justice, while questioning why Liberal Democrats in government voted for such destructive legislation. Charley Pattison said the review of LASPO, when it is conducted, will confirm that the current system is not working.
Perhaps most pertinently given that the polls indicate a substantial Conservative majority, Mark Trafford said he hopes there will be an evidence-based review of LASPO, but warned the audience not to expect huge sums of money to go back into legal aid. Instead, he referred to the prospects of extending online dispute resolution, as countries such as the Netherlands and Canada have done. When Trafford was accused by a YLAL member of ‘putting the cart before the horse’ by saying the legal aid spend will remain fixed before the review of LASPO takes place, he said he hopes that if the review reveals problems, some money will be redistributed.
However, it emerged yesterday that despite the government announcing earlier this year that it would complete its review of the impact of LASPO by April 2018, the Conservative manifesto makes no commitment to reviewing the legal aid cuts. Indeed, the only reference to legal aid in ‘Forward, Together’ was a pledge to ‘restrict legal aid for unscrupulous law firms that issue vexatious legal claims against the armed forces’, perhaps (conveniently) forgetting that public funding in civil cases is already subject to a merits test.
Fittingly for an audience of young legal aid lawyers, the panel were also asked about social mobility and access to the legal profession. Catherine Atkinson plugged Labour’s proposals to ban unpaid internships and scrap tuition fees in order to make education and training more accessible to people from low-income backgrounds, while expressing support for YLAL’s work on diversity and access to the profession.
Charley Pattison spoke about her experience as a legal aid lawyer and focussed on the cost of education and training, and Alistair Webster recognised the ‘exceptional work’ of legal aid lawyers but said the process of training lawyers starts well before university. Mark Trafford spoke about the improvements that have already been made to diversity in the legal profession, arguing that ‘we’re doing well, but we could be doing better’.
At the end of the debate, each speaker was offered a final opportunity to persuade the audience to vote for their party. Alistair Webster urged everyone to look at the Liberal Democrat manifesto and vote for ‘coherent, intelligent and effective opposition’ to the likely Conservative landslide. Catherine Atkinson called on the audience to vote for Labour as an alternative, a ‘voice for people with no voices’.
Mark Trafford was reluctant to predict the outcome of the election as he recalled recent votes ‘for Hillary and Remain’, but said that one makes a difference by getting involved. Finally, Charley Pattison – who conceded that she is unlikely to be the next Lord Chancellor – asked us to vote Green for ‘a real commitment to access to justice and legal aid’ and for progressive policies for a more equal society.
The outcome of the general election on 8 June could have significant consequences for access to justice over the next five years and beyond. Young Legal Aid Lawyers is calling on all parties and candidates to commit to:
- Reviewing the impact of the LASPO legal aid cuts;
- Bringing areas of law removed from the scope of legal aid by LASPO back into scope;
- Increasing the thresholds and simplifying the financial means tests for civil and criminal legal aid; and
- Reviewing the impact of increased court and tribunal fees on access to justice.
YLAL invites you to email your prospective parliamentary candidates to call on them to support legal aid and access to justice – see our website for a template email and details of how to find your local candidates.