I was recently told of the case of a two-year-old girl who suffered major brain damage because an out-of-hours GP failed to diagnose her meningitis. Her family was granted legal aid to take the doctor to court for medical negligence and eventually managed to settle the case before trial – the money they received will help pay for their daughter’s ongoing care.
If this had happened today, her lawyers Thompsons Solicitors say it’s unlikely her family would have taken the case at all because the Tories’ cuts mean she wouldn’t be eligible for legal aid and the family couldn’t afford to pay the legal fees.
It’s not just sick children either: victims of domestic violence, tenants dealing with bad landlords, families about to be made homeless, have all be prevented from accessing legal aid because of this government’s cuts. Applications for civil legal aid are down 84 per cent in the last 5 years. That’s hundreds of thousands of people being locked out of justice because of the Tories’ cuts to legal aid introduced in the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment Act (LASPO) 5 years ago.
Labour’s Lord Bach and a team of experts assembled by the Fabian Society, have spent 2 years listening to over 100 individuals and organisations give evidence on the state of the justice system 5 years on from the Tories’ LASPO Act. The Bach Commission’s conclusion, published by the Fabian Society, is that our justice system is in crisis – people across the country are unable to fight injustice and challenge offences because whole areas of law have been taken out of legal aid. Cuts have meant in the last 5 years the number of law firms offering legal aid has fallen 20 per cent meaning that even if you are still eligible for support, you still may not be able to get legal advice or fight your case
If you’ve been the victim of injustice, it shouldn’t make a difference where you’re from or what you earn – you should be able to access justice like anyone else. But under the Tories the reality is that justice is no longer a right it’s a privilege of those who can afford it. If you’re poor and have had your benefits wrongly taken away, or are living in an unsafe or poorly maintained building, unless you can find money to pay legal fees you’ve got no way of challenging it, the government’s attitude is – good luck.
In response, the Bach Commission has recommended a new legally enforceable right to justice, to ensure that cost is never a barrier to justice. It also recommends re-instating legal aid for areas of law that were removed by the LASPO Act, such as early legal help for all social welfare law to try and prevent small problems turning into much bigger ones. They recommend all civil cases relating to children should be automatically eligible for legal aid as well as the most serious family law cases, family reunion for refugees and vulnerable relatives and legal aid for inquests.
This is a serious and comprehensive review into the state of our legal aid system that’s long overdue, and yet it’s taken Labour to commission it. In February under pressure government ministers promised a review into legal aid, but seven months later when I asked them what progress they’ve made, they refused to answer, they haven’t even started.
Labour will be coming forward with detailed plans on how we will take forward Lord Bach’s recommendations, which will provide vital evidence for the Labour party’s policymaking process. Whatever your background, race or gender, whether you’re from a city or small town, Labour will always stand up for your fair access to justice.