We live at a time when the rule of law is under attack. Too many powerful institutions pay lip service to the concept of access to justice without having sufficient regard for what it actually means. It is, after all, fairly simple: unless everybody can get some access to the legal system at the time in their lives when they need it, trust in our institutions and in the rule of law breaks down. When that happens, society breaks down.
The work for this report began in the autumn of 2015, after Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour party. I approached him with a proposal for a review into legal aid and he welcomed the idea and asked me to chair it. Working with the Fabian Society, I then assembled an impressive and expert team of commissioners. In the first year of our work, we heard and received evidence from a wide range of witnesses, before producing an interim report which gained considerable interest. The report introduced our main proposal, that there should be a statutory right to justice. This important and innovative policy is now set out in detail in this, our final report.
During the first half of 2017, the commission heard more evidence that has considerably influenced our thinking. There is an urgent need to bring some areas of civil law back into the scope of legal aid, with a focus on early legal help in order to help prevent problems developing further down the track. There are also huge administrative problems with the operation of legal aid, and levels of public legal capability are dangerously low.
The supreme court has recently and authoritatively restated our existing rights to justice, and the importance they hold. But the crisis in our justice system shows that the rights we have now are insufficient. We believe that a new statute is needed to codify our existing entitlements, and to establish a new right to reasonable legal assistance that people can afford. That is why we call for a new Right to Justice Act, which we believe should be monitored and enforced by a new, independent commission. We hope that this new act will help lift the provision of justice above the political fray.