Garden Court Chambers contributed evidence to the Bach Commission on the impact of legal aid cuts, particularly the impact on: criminal defence, the representation of migrants and asylum seekers, legal protections for tenants and bereaved families in inquests.
People should have a right to justice they can afford, urges this major new report on access to our justice system. The Bach Commission on Access to Justice was founded at the end of 2015 to develop realistic but radical proposals with cross-party appeal for re-establishing the right to justice as a fundamental public entitlement, equivalent to that of education or healthcare.
The commission has found that cuts to legal aid have created a two-tier justice system where the poorest go without representation or advice.
In its final report, published today, the commission calls on the government and other political parties to ensure minimum standards on access to justice are upheld through a new Right to Justice Act. The proposed Right to Justice Act will codify our existing rights to justice and establish a new right for individuals to receive reasonable legal assistance without costs they cannot afford. The commission also proposes establishing a new body called the Justice Commission to monitor and enforce this new right.
To make the act a reality, the commission also sets out an immediate action plan for the government to: widen the scope of legal aid, with a focus on early legal help; reform the eligibility requirements for legal aid; replace the Legal Aid Agency with an independent body; and improve the public’s understanding of the law.
Other key recommendations in the report include:
- Domestic violence: further liberalising reforms to the domestic violence gateway
- Children: all matters concerning legal support for children should be brought back into the scope of civil legal aid
- Immigration: a full investigation into which areas of immigration law should be within the scope of legal aid funded representation. Cases involving stateless persons and cases involving family reunion in which vulnerability is involved should be brought back into scope
- Inquests: Where the state is funding one or more of the other parties at an inquest, it should also provide legal aid for representation of the family of the deceased
- Judicial review: regulations limiting the remuneration of legal aid providers for judicial review cases should be repealed
- Viability of the legal aid profession: Commissioning an independent review of the state of the legal aid profession and its continued viability. This review should focus on the impact any decline in size or quality has on the ability of the public to access justice, and consider the effects of the decision to cut the bursary scheme for aspiring legal aid lawyers
- Crime: the government should consider how to simplify and clarify the means testing process in criminal courts, and review the level of contributions made. This should focus on reducing the number of litigants in person; and ensuring that the level of monthly contributions is affordable and significantly below the costs of the case.
Lucie Wibberley of Garden Court Chambers said: "It is encouraging to see that the Bach Commission have scrutinised carefully the evidence provided to them, including submissions from Garden Court, and made welcome recommendations to enact a legally enforceable right to justice for all”.
Joanne Cecil of Garden Court Chambers is an Independent Commissioner on the Bach Commission.
The report has been covered widely in the media including the Guardian.