The budget for justice will rise by only 4% in the next year and 2% in the following year, which represents a gap next to the predicted inflation rate of 7.4%, as announced in the Autumn Budget Statement yesterday. In the wake of the announcement , the Bar Council launched a new report yesterday addressing the current state of the justice system in England and Wales. The report draws on the testimony of practitioners and strongly urges the Government not to make further budget cuts.
Civil legal aid was severely restricted by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) which, one barrister reports, has been ‘horrendous for every participant in the court process.’ The lack of better resourcing of legal aid advice has had considerable adverse impacts and unintended consequences: fewer and fewer members of the Bar are getting involved with pro bono and legal aid work due to unsustainable remuneration, and fee rates have hit the legal industry severely in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. This has resulted in a vicious cycle of fewer people accessing the justice system and systematically lowering the system’s capacity.
The report also points to concerning evidence about the declining state of the courts in England and Wales. A total of 239 courts have closed since 2010 and some other court buildings are not fit for purpose with leaks and infestation due to lacking funding for basic maintenance.
The report also notes that lawyers simply acting in compliance with their professional obligations have been vilified for political ends. There have been several occasions where government officials engaged in political rhetoric criticising lawyers. Boris Johnson attacked immigration lawyers as ‘legal eagles, liberal-left’ for representing asylum seekers at risk of being sent offshore to Rwanda. The Bar Council concludes that such comments are inappropriate, contrary to the rule of law and create unnecessary stress for lawyers.
It has been widely observed that the crumbling system is harming both access to justice for service users and those who work in the legal aid sector. Wider evidence shows that legal aid lawyers are being forced to give up their jobs and seek to practice in other areas. ‘The solution is clear: long-term planning and resourcing of a system that is equipped to provide the legal redress to which people are entitled,’ the report states.