I beg to move,
That this House
has considered access to justice for vulnerable people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak on what is an increasingly critical issue: access to justice, particularly for those who for whatever reason would otherwise be left without legal redress. The Opposition recognise the fundamental importance of legal aid in ensuring that everyone has access to justice. It is a significant time for legal aid, and today marks the inaugural meeting of the Bach commission, led by my colleague Lord Willy Bach and my hon. Friend Karl Turner. The commission has brought together experts from across the legal profession and will explore establishing access to justice as a fundamental public entitlement.
Since 2010 the Government have cut legal aid to the bone. The consensus that once existed around legal aid has been sidelined. Although we recognise the need to make savings, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the Justice Committee have all criticised the Government’s failure to understand the knock-on costs and wider consequences of their reforms. The Labour party recognises the importance of legal aid in making sure the state does not infringe upon the liberty of its citizens, and we understand its crucial role as a tool for legal redress in family disputes. Those who traditionally benefit from legal aid—the poor and most vulnerable—have been marginalised by the policies of this Government. They have seen the erosion of their rights at work, in schools, and in their housing and welfare needs. In 2010, as Labour left office, almost 500,000 cases received advice or assistance for social welfare issues. The year after the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 came into force, it was less than 53,000.
I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend has constituents in his surgeries every single week desperate for legal help, who previously would have benefited from the legal aid regime, but who now cannot find legal help or representation anywhere and cannot afford to pay for it.
My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. This is about the kind of society we want to live in. There is no doubt that a key indicator of that is the way in which we deal with access to justice. My constituents, like hers, are deeply concerned about the distortion of our justice system, which we are discussing here today.
The figures that I have cited show a massive drop in access to justice, and that has had a huge impact on people across England and Wales: parents unable to see their children; employees unfairly dismissed or discriminated against; tenants mistreated by abusive landlords; and women unable to leave abusive partners. Those are exactly the kind of people the Government claim to stand up for, but the reality is different. Consider family proceedings, for instance. In the first quarter of 2015, 76% of private family law cases had at least one party who was not represented. That means our constituents no longer receive the support and advice that is required for them to have effective redress in the courts.
The problem is most acute in the civil and family courts, which are dealing with an unprecedented rise in the number of litigants in person. Previously, litigants in person were most often there by choice, choosing to self-represent, but it is now the case that litigants in person are there because they cannot get legal aid. The personal support unit, which provides help to people facing civil court hearings, has seen a rise of 900% in clients helped. The deck is firmly stacked against the most vulnerable. What was once a relatively level playing field has been seriously distorted, with litigants in person now effectively battling uphill, often challenging decisions passed down by the Government.
The checks and balances that were previously in place for citizens to hold the Government to account have been seriously limited. Across the legal spectrum, we have seen the removal of vast swathes of legal aid, the closing down of law centres, and the removal of good quality legal advice from those who need it most. If that was not enough, the safeguard of judicial review has also been severely curtailed. We have seen the warm words from the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, who decried a two-nation justice system, but unfortunately we all know his rhetoric is not being backed up by action. The Justice Secretary has carried on from where his predecessor left off: sidelining legal aid; the sector cut to the bone; court closures denying access to local justice; and massive increases in fees, excluding many from the system.
One particular section of the population in desperate need are the victims of domestic violence. During the passage of the LASPO Bill, the Government made a point of saying that it was not their intention to make legal aid available to all victims of domestic violence. The Government have been too narrow in the safeguards put in place for ensuring that victims of domestic violence can receive legal aid. The Justice Committee expressed concern in its report about the evidence requirements for victims of domestic violence, and a recent survey from Rights of Women revealed that 39% of respondents did not have the evidence required to qualify for legal aid. Another survey found that almost half of respondents did not take any action in relation to their family law problem because they were unable to apply for legal aid, and a further 25% opted to represent themselves in court. Those figures reflect the findings of the all-party group on domestic and sexual violence, which found that more than 60% of respondents did not commence action and that one in six had to pay more than £50 to get the required evidence to prove domestic violence. Victims of domestic violence should not be forced to choose between staying with their abuser and having to face them in court. Although the Opposition do not believe that that was the Government’s intention in the legal aid reforms, it none the less persists and must be addressed.
My hon. Friend is raising important points about domestic violence and the barriers to accessing legal aid that particularly women face, but women face a double barrier when it comes to sex discrimination in the workplace. The new employment tribunal fees mean we have seen a huge drop in the number of women seeking justice.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She makes an absolutely critical point about women in the workplace. This plays into the broader theme of today’s discussion, which is about how we ensure we include all elements of society so that we can build an economy and society that is cohesive and dynamic. The issues are not only about rights and equalities in the narrow sense; they are about how those rights and equalities play into the creation of an inclusive and dynamic economy where all people are able to bring their talents to the table, and women are a critical element of that. Without redress to justice, they will not have the checks and balances in place that they need to defend their rights, as should every other member of society.
A clear theme is coming through in the interventions from my hon. Friends. The overall theme is around the question of whether the Government have properly considered the impact of their legislation and policies on some of the most vulnerable groups in society, such as the homeless; those threatened with eviction and serious housing disrepair; those in need of community care services; parents and children involved in child abduction cases; and those with mental health and mental capacity issues. This test only further entrenches the gap between those who can and those who cannot access justice. The law is there to protect all citizens, and a robust justice system should make sure that justice should be afforded to all, not only those who can afford it.
Last week the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, issued his annual report in which he raised concerns about the lack of access to justice, and Lord Justice Briggs said:
“To any rational observer who values access to civil justice, this is a truly shocking state of affairs.”
If we have the most senior judiciary in our country worrying about lack of access to justice, does my hon. Friend not agree that the Government must take heed and start to change their policies in this arena?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I agree entirely with every word of it, and with the sentiment. Members clearly have a deep and active interest in this issue, but we could never claim to be experts at the same level as the judiciary whom she just cited. We must defer to those views. If the most eminent experts in the world are telling us that the system is seriously flawed and the new legislation is deeply damaging, surely we must take heed of their interventions.
Nothing we see from the Government addresses what is increasingly being recognised as a two-nation justice system—and this from the party that claims to be a one-nation party. How we treat the most vulnerable is a key barometer of the kind of society we are and aspire to be, particularly when it relates to that most fundamental of rights: equality before the law. The increase in court fees, alongside reduced access to legal aid, restricts access to justice. Unless the Government change course, they will fail on the first duty of any Government: the just maintenance of law and order.
I did not expect to be called to speak so early, Mr Bailey.
It is a pleasure to be able to participate, and I thank Stephen Kinnock for setting the scene so well. Members present, including me, have a particular interest in this matter, which I shall discuss from a Northern Ireland perspective. Some things in Northern Ireland are not right and are not going well, and this is an opportunity to tell the House about them. Perhaps the Minister, having listened to my comments, can respond. In telling the stories from Northern Ireland, I want to show where we need to focus.
Legal aid is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, so the responsibility lies very clearly with the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Legal Services Agency Northern Ireland administers the statutory legal aid system, and although it is a devolved matter, that does not mean I cannot share views about Northern Ireland, and that is what I shall do. As the Member for Strangford, speaking on behalf of the constituents who have contacted me about this issue, it is important that we have those views on the record in the mother of Parliaments and at the same time stand up for fellow countrymen and women in England and Wales who may be affected by the changes to legal aid since 2012.
Over the previous parliamentary term, I had a number of discussions with the shadow Minister, Karl Turner. He has been vociferous about legal aid on the Floor of the House. There has been no mention of it without him being there to speak about it. I look forward to the Minister’s response as well. He is a compassionate Minister who knows the issues and what we are about here, so I would like to hear his thoughts.
Despite being devolved, legal aid has proved to be an issue in Northern Ireland. More than 600 defendants have been left without a lawyer as the dispute over legal aid continues to prove an obstacle to the efficiency of the courts. I have been in contact with the Minister responsible for policing and justice in Northern Ireland, David Ford, as well as with solicitors and barristers who have expressed their views to me, so I am aware of the issues that we have back home and where the problems are. In his introduction, the hon. Member for Aberavon spoke specifically about vulnerable people, and I will as well, because they are the people we are here to represent.
Across Northern Ireland, hundreds of Crown court cases are stuck in the early stages of the legal process as lawyers continue to refuse to take on new criminal cases in protest against cuts to their pay. It is a critical issue, and there is a balance to be struck. I understand that the Government are under financial pressures, as we are in the Northern Ireland Assembly as well. The financial constraints might start here, but they go out to all the regional Administrations, particularly the Northern Ireland Assembly. The stand-off about pay has caused mayhem in the court system, with a growing backlog of cases as the dispute intensifies. Lawyers have taken industrial action in response to the cuts, withdrawing professional services in criminal cases as part of the protest.
The latest figures were released just last week and show that there are currently 817 cases outstanding in Northern Ireland. Of those, 545 are directly affected by the legal aid dispute. The magnitude of what is happening there is mirrored elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The issues are financial, and perhaps there are more complexities; nevertheless, the breakdown of the figures include some worrying cases. The outstanding cases include seven murder suspects, four accused of attempted murder, 60 accused of sex crimes, 76 accused of drug offences and 39 accused of fraud. Without stakeholder agreement and a reasonable solution here on the mainland, we could see a similar, if not worse, situation arise.
I say this with great respect because I am not someone who attacks political parties—that is not my form, Mr Bailey, and I never do it—but the Alliance party leads the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland, and its unreasonable approach has seen law firms operating at a loss as a result of changes to the legal aid system. Top solicitors in the Province have warned that law firms quite simply cannot continue to operate at such a loss without bankruptcy, and that with so many cases backlogged the situation can only get worse. Local solicitors in my town, Newtownards, and elsewhere in my constituency, have confirmed that.
Disputes over legal aid not only threaten the efficiency of the justice system but can lead to the erosion of the right to a free and fair trial for all. I have heard the shadow Minister say that on numerous occasions in the Chamber; I have not seen his speech, but he will probably say the same thing shortly in Westminster Hall. Some of the most vulnerable people in our society would depend on legal aid should they ever require legal assistance. We are talking about people who are unable to access justice because of their vulnerability. There are many more people out there who may need to call upon legal aid but will be unable to. As a House and as Members of Parliament, we have a duty need to ensure that such people are protected from changes to the legal aid framework.
To reduce costs, we must focus on those over-represented in the legal aid client base. Change is necessary to address that over-representation, but we must be careful of the unintended consequences. I do not think that the Government deliberately intended what we have seen, but there are unintended consequences, and we have already seen in Northern Ireland just how out of control the situation can get in a short space of time. The Government need to engage with pro-bono organisations, solicitors’ groups and other relevant bodies to ensure a comprehensive strategy to address over-representation in the legal aid client base while protecting the vulnerable people who might find themselves in genuine need of legal aid assistance.
The exceptional funding route for those who are disadvantaged is clearly not working. Not only does the Ministry of Justice fail to recognise that there are vulnerable people in our society who need this sort of funding, regardless of what the European Court of Human Rights, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission or the European Union says; it fails to provide, let alone implement, a strategy to ensure that no vulnerable person in our society is in such a position in the first place. We are elected by our constituents as Members of Parliament to speak out on their behalf about the issues that arise. That is what I do in this House, as do other right hon. and hon. Members. When vulnerable people are squeezed, pushed and coerced and find no one to turn to, we have to step up and do our best for them.
We have today an overdue opportunity to discuss legal aid, an issue that I am sure will not go away. That is why it is important that the Minister will respond and important to hear what the shadow Minister and other Members will say. It was also important to hear the opening speech by the hon. Member for Aberavon and the interventions by other Members. I hope that Members will take note of the experiences I have shared from Northern Ireland, and that they share my sense of urgency about this issue on behalf of my constituents. Everyone in a civilised country such as ours should have a free and fair trial and should be legally represented. The Ministry of Justice needs to go forth and resolve the issue in a sustainable, long-term and proper fashion.
I congratulate Stephen Kinnock on raising this subject for debate. I did not intend to make a speech today, but in the absence of other colleagues I thought I would have a go.
Not one Member of this House regards access to justice as something that should be restricted to the rich, and nobody thinks that ensuring that people have access to fair trials and that the criminal and civil justice systems work are not serious issues. When the coalition Government came to power in 2010, it had already been flagged by the previous Government that changes to legal aid were in train. The hon. Gentleman did not set out which of the Government’s changes to legal aid the Opposition agree with. I presume they agree with some of them; perhaps the shadow Minister can tell us which.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early. I think he is about to tell us that the previous Labour Government would also have made cuts to various Departments and that the Ministry of Justice would have taken a hit, but the reality is that the coalition Government and this majority Conservative Government have made a shocking mess of the justice system. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 cut hugely the number of vulnerable people who have access to the courts. The hon. Gentleman should not lecture the Chamber about the fact that the previous Labour would have cut. We accept that we would, but this issue is not about just cutting. The Government have been completely and utterly incompetent.
I thank the shadow Minister for his lengthy intervention, during which, I note, he did not answer the question I asked him. He will get a chance later to tell us which of the coalition Government’s changes to legal aid the Opposition support. Presumably they support some of them or would have done something else altogether.
Access to justice matters, and all of us have constituents who are affected by it. We heard that the Bar has been threatening to go on strike over some of the changes. I want to talk about the structure of how we do law in this country, because perhaps something is wrong with it. There were 2,500 practising barristers in 1980 and 15,000 in 2010, and there are 16,000 now. The Bar has grown hugely as legal aid costs have grown. I am not saying that is wrong—a very large number of talented people work at the Bar—but it is not indicative of a profession under major stress.
I do not want to make a cheap point about earnings at the Bar, but I will say this. A significant minority of practitioners earn from criminal legal aid sums significantly in excess of how much the Prime Minister is paid.
One moment, and I will certainly give way.
That is not to say that salaries at the Bar are too high in general, but it is an issue. No other public sector employees—I accept that the Bar is independent, but perhaps that is one of the issues—earn money of that kind. Think of how much surgeons in the national health service earn.
Order. May I remind you, Mr Turner, that interventions should be short? We are not too constrained by time, and you will have a generous amount of time to make it up.
I am obliged, Mr Bailey, but I wonder whether you would just let me make the point. A criminal solicitor, for example, of about five years’ experience earns about £28,000. A criminal barrister with the same experience earns about £30,000, but is self-employed. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could visit his local chambers and make that argument to members of the Bar and criminal solicitors.
Part of the problem is that huge swathes of people are graduating and going into the law—both the solicitors’ profession and the Bar. The problem is that the work is not there for them now because of the Government’s cuts to legal aid, so it is very difficult to get a practice up and running. If we do not have solicitors and barristers, we will not have a judiciary in the future.
The hon. Lady’s point is spot on. Barristers have told me that too many people are going into the profession, given the work that is available, despite the fact that their numbers are several times more than a few years ago. The consequence is that too many of them are effectively working part time and are not able to do as many cases as they ought to be doing, given their productivity, so their earnings are lower, as the shadow Minister said.
The point I am making is that some of the work of representing vulnerable people that was previously available is not available to the Bar and the solicitors’ profession because legal aid has gone.
We will come to the amount of money we spend on legal aid, although I note that I have certainly got this debate going, so I guess we should at least be grateful for that—as I said, I did not intend to speak today.
A point has been made about the fact that we spend a large amount of money on legal aid compared with other countries such as Germany and France, which, as far as I am aware, do not have legal systems that are not fit for purpose. They have non-adversarial legal systems, which are different from ours, so they may be different in other areas. Despite the fact that we spend many billions of pounds on our legal system, that our spending on legal aid per capita is much higher than other countries—even those with adversarial systems, such as New Zealand—and that people work in good faith at the Bar, the judiciary, the Crown Prosecution Service and elsewhere, there is a structural issue with our legal system, and we need to look at it. Perhaps we should look at whether the Bar should be independent and at whether more barristers should be employed. Perhaps the shadow Minister will come forward with that proposal. It is not reasonable to say that the Government have no role in curtailing the amount of expenditure on that area, although we must be fair to all who are involved.
The hon. Member for Aberavon briefly mentioned judicial review, at which a number of the changes were aimed. The number of judicial reviews has increased by a factor of something like four in the past eight years. Such numbers are very significant, and it is reasonable that the Government look at them. I am not in the Government, and I do not know whether they have got it right in all cases. That is why I was so keen to get an answer from the shadow Minister to my question about which of the changes to legal aid he agrees with. I am sure we will hear from him about that.
It is wrong to say that Government Members are not as concerned about access to justice and vulnerable people as Opposition Members, but questions need to be asked about the structure of the legal system and about how things work at the moment. The rate of increase that we saw before 2010 would have been untenable if it had continued at that level, as the then Labour Government recognised.
We come now to the Opposition spokespersons’ responses. Ordinarily, they would be confined to 10 minutes. However, we are not inordinately time constrained at the moment, so I am going to be a bit flexible. Given the heat that this debate has generated so far, could the Opposition spokespersons be sensible in the way they use their time and give the Minister plenty of time to reply? Equally, if the Minister could give Mr Stephen Kinnock an opportunity to sum up, that would be appreciated.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship as we debate a crucial topic, Mr Bailey. What can be more fundamental than ensuring access to justice? For that reason, I congratulate Stephen Kinnock on securing this debate. I also congratulate David Mowat on his brave and spontaneous speech, which certainly got the debate going.
Different jurisdictions across the UK and across the world are each on their own journey as they continually grapple with access to justice, constantly updating procedural rules, introducing new technologies and reforming legal aid. Every jurisdiction can learn lessons from each of the others, as Jim Shannon suggested, but I agree with the hon. Member for Aberavon that the UK Government should be doing more learning than teaching. It is clear that access to justice has suffered under the Conservative Government, and the former coalition partnership, as yet another austerity sacrifice.
Turning to the motion, in one sense the words “for vulnerable people” could be seen as superfluous, because if a person’s access to justice is denied or made difficult, they become vulnerable people as a result. Thankfully, there is access to justice for most, but that is not good enough. If we believe in the rule of law, everyone should be able to vindicate their rights and have access to justice. Under this Government, access has become harder and harder for too many people. Understandably, and unsurprisingly, the main focus of the debate was legal aid, but we had good arguments about other aspects of proceedings, which gave food for thought on how every jurisdiction can improve access to justice.
Turning to the main point of contention, I agree that the huge cuts in funding and eligibility for legal aid brought about by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 are little short of a disgrace. The hon. Member for Aberavon highlighted some of the frightening statistics about the dramatic fall in the number of legal aid-funded cases, particularly for victims of domestic violence. As mentioned by Jo Stevens, all the arguments were well summed up by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales when he said:
“Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most. In consequence there has been a considerable increase of litigants in person for whom our current court system is not really designed.”
Many of the issues were aired in another recent Westminster Hall debate on access to justice in Wales, and I want to tackle a couple of the arguments that Ministers have previously used to continue their attempted defence of legal aid cuts. They have said that it is better to encourage mediation than provide legal aid and an attempt at mediation should be encouraged or even required—by all means—but without pulling the rug from under people’s feet if it does not work. Legal aid spend should fall as a result of successful mediation, but not because people who have been forced into mediation have to sell themselves short and accept settlements even when mediation has failed. Ministers also claimed, and will probably claim again—the hon. Member for Warrington South started to make arguments along these lines—that the legal aid system in England and Wales
“remains one of the most generous in the world.”—[Hansard, 15 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 528WH.]
That is the same old chestnut that the Justice Secretary used when pushing the cuts through, but it is like comparing apples and oranges and the argument does not stack up.
Professor Alan Paterson of the University of Strathclyde, chair of the International Legal Aid Group, pointed out that systems here cannot be compared with those on the continent, which are inquisitorial systems, a point which was accepted by the hon. Member for Warrington South. Such systems generally require less input from legal representatives, but significantly more resources are spent on prosecution services and the courts. Once expenditure on those other parts of the equation is factored in, England and Wales comes about a third of the way down the European league table. Professor Paterson made a specific comparison with Holland: back in 2011, England and Wales spent more than twice as much per capita on legal aid as Holland, but with a total per capita spend of around €90 on legal aid, courts and prosecutions combined, Holland spends a greater overall per capita sum on justice than England and Wales, where the total was around €80 euros. Of course, even if England and Wales has a higher per capita legal aid spend, it absolutely does not follow that that is because it has more generous eligibility rules. The hon. Member for Warrington South mentioned New Zealand, but the Law Society of England and Wales pointed out that the differential was not significantly caused by any increased generosity. Indeed, New Zealand was more generous in that regard. More relevant were higher crime rates, higher divorce rates, and higher expenditure per case.
Briefly, I have some similar points about the position in Scotland. Professor Paterson, in his Hamlyn lectures at the University of Cambridge in 2010, pointed out that the Scottish Legal Aid Board spent around £29 per capita compared with £38 in England and Wales, and yet the system in Scotland was more generous in terms of scope, including personal injury claims and representation at employment tribunals. It was also considerably more generous in terms of coverage, with a significantly higher proportion of the population financially eligible for legal aid. The system in Scotland remains uncapped and demand-led. Why, therefore, was the per capita spend in England and Wales higher? One significant factor was the high number of high-cost fraud cases prosecuted south of the border compared with in Scotland. In reality, the Government were taking away from the least well-off in order to fund the prosecution of high-value fraudsters. That argument does not appeal to me. According to Professor Paterson, court procedures in Scotland, both civil and criminal, have received holistic reform to reduce legal aid spend. That is a better approach than wholesale legal aid cuts, which cause so much social damage.
The hon. Member for Aberavon also highlighted last year’s Select Committee on Justice report, which noted that the Ministry of Justice’s four objectives for the reforms were to discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense, to target legal aid to those who need it most, to make significant savings in the cost of the scheme and to deliver better overall value for money for the taxpayer. However, the Committee concluded that,
“while it had made significant savings in the cost of the scheme, the Ministry had harmed access to justice for some litigants and had not achieved the other three out of four of its stated objectives for the reforms.”
The hon. Gentleman also pointed out that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have made similar criticisms. We are left wondering whether anyone actually thinks that the reforms have been a success.
The Justice Committee also made some excellent points regarding the claimed savings and delivering value for money. It said:
“The Ministry’s efforts to target legal aid at those who most need it have suffered from the weakness that they have often been aimed at the point after a crisis has already developed, such as in housing repossession cases, rather than being preventive.”
From my own experience as a solicitor, I would say that public money spent providing help to those who need it to fill in complex immigration application forms offers better value than pursuing tribunal appeals or judicial reviews after that person has got the form wrong. That is the approach taken by the Scottish Government in its 2011 strategy “A sustainable future for legal aid”, the themes of which are the right help at the right time, delivering justice efficiently and maximising value. That all points to a preventive approach that avoids problems escalating to the point at which they can cause lasting damage and disruption to people in our communities and increased cost to the public purse.
However, as other hon. Members pointed out, legal aid alone does not secure access to justice. Cat Smith pointed out that the fees that have been introduced for employment tribunals are making the vindication of important employment rights more difficult. Criminal court charges were introduced in the previous Parliament, encouraging innocent people to plead guilty. I warmly welcome the change of heart that seems to have been signalled by the current Justice Secretary. We could indeed spend days considering the simplification of procedures, the use of plain English, special safeguards for children, protections for those who are doli incapax, pro bono work, the provision of law centres and even the use of technology, which I am sure the Minister will mention.
Finally, as parliamentarians, we need to take care how we respond to Bills that are passing through Parliament. The Immigration Bill currently making its way through the House of Lords will make people leave their families and jobs and conduct appeals against Home Office decisions from abroad. I do not regard that as access to justice. The Bill would also cut back on appeal rights against refusal of asylum support, leaving vulnerable, destitute people without any legal recourse.
Perhaps most disgracefully of all, the Bill will introduce procedures that will allow families with children to be summarily evicted without so much as a court order, never mind a court hearing. Any Government pursuing that sort of agenda cannot claim to be prioritising access to justice. As the new chair of the Bar Council said:
“Justice is not a luxury, and everyone should be able to defend their rights through the legal system.”
The Government need to listen and change course.
It is always a privilege to serve under your chairship, Mr Bailey.
To declare my interests, my wife is employed as a criminal duty solicitor and part-time judge and, before my election to the House, I was a member of Wilberforce barristers’ chambers in Hull. I was a junior member of the Bar and certainly not earning “fat cat” moneys, as David Mowat might want to believe.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Stephen Kinnock on securing this important and timely debate. It could not have come at a better time, because the commission chaired by Lord Willy Bach is as we speak hearing evidence from experts in the professions on how we deal with this problem of access to justice and legal aid.
The Bach commission was established by my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party. It is fair to say that the Leader of the Opposition understands legal aid. He, unlike any other leader of a political party that I can remember, actually gets it, as no one else has done. He understands it, he cares about it and, as a result, he has established the Bach commission to look at access to justice and legal aid. He is also doing that in a non-party political way.
Members of the commission have been appointed by Willy Bach not because of their politics or any sort of association with or affiliation to any political party, but, on the contrary, because of their expertise and their knowledge not only of legal aid and access to justice, but of other things. For example, one member, a particularly huge asset to the commission, is Tanni Grey-Thompson, who is also providing expertise in relation to disability. So the commission is non-partisan and we hope that it will come to a view on how we provide access to justice for the most vulnerable people in our society.
It has to be said that the Government have made a real mess of access to justice and legal aid. Since 2010, advice-and-assistance matter starts in social welfare have gone from 471,000 down to 53,000, a drop of 91%. So more than 400,000 people are now not provided with the opportunity to receive legal advice and are not given the chance to access the courts. They are often left paddling their own canoe, faced with extremely complex issues of procedure and law, and left to do all that on their own.
In reality, no money is saved, because the courts are delayed. Judges are complaining constantly, privately in the main, but complaining none the less that cases are delayed while litigants in person are left fending for themselves, trying to navigate through complex areas of procedure and law. There is no real saving.
Following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, exceptional case funding was supposed to help people who are denied access to lawyers. I think this is right—I will be corrected by the Minister if I am wrong—but last year, for example, only 394 applications were granted under the scheme, rather than the 3,700 or so estimated. Clearly, the system is not working.
The Government might be about to reintroduce the residence test. They got excited about that and were pleased that the judicial review was successful, in that the Government won, but the lord justices who heard the case for review were not considering the practical effects of the residence test. They were simply deciding whether the residence test was legal or “Wednesbury unreasonable”; they were not considering whether the test itself was practical or could be implemented successfully. To reintroduce the residence test would be a huge mistake. I have not heard from a lawyer who has been able to explain how it would work. I have asked the Minister, too, how it would work. Will he explain exactly how he intends the residence test to work in practice?
As for criminal legal aid, the Government are now attempting to implement a system that will see the number of duty contract providers reduced from some 1,650 to 526. There has been a cut of about 17.5%. The Government say that the number of providers needs to be reduced and consolidated, in order to allow them a profit on their work. The system, however, cannot work. It will not work and the Minister knows that it will not work. It is undergoing litigation, but the reality is that the Government have made a terrible mess of the duty criminal contracts since 2010. It was needless, in truth, but the entire thing is in a terrible mess now, to the point of a whistleblower coming forward. The whistleblower was employed through the Legal Aid Agency to help with the procurement exercise and was able to explain how chaotic the entire system was.
Last night I received an email from a criminal law solicitor, Mr Andrew Gurney of Gurney Harden Solicitors in Ashford. I will not read the entire content of the email, but that firm of solicitors was successful in its application for six contracts. Mr Gurney makes the point:
“We were involved in 6 successful bids and our early estimates put our costs at £30,000”— so he knows. He knows that the system is impossible to implement. His firm has spent £30,000 in applying for contracts that everyone knows will probably not happen, because everyone knows that it is impossible to implement the system.
The system is not fit for purpose, and the Government have been warned about it. The Justice Secretary privately accepts that the idea of removing more than 1,000 firms of solicitors and leaving some areas without access to duty solicitors is unmanageable. So even Ministers privately believe that access to justice for the most vulnerable people will be denied as a result of the Government’s plans to implement a system that is absolutely chaotic. It is time that the Government listened to people who know better than them.
That brings me to the point made by the hon. Member for Warrington South. We need consensus. We need to put politics aside. It is all right for me to come here and attack the Government—I enjoy that—but the reality is that will not get us anywhere. We need to sit down and accept that people need access to law. As my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party has said, that ought to be considered a basic human right. If the state is taking on an individual, surely the most basic thing required of a civilised society is to allow that individual access to people who have experience and expertise in the area of law that they are trying to navigate.
It is somewhat ironic that, later on this morning, the Minister for Human Rights will be appearing before the EU Justice Sub-Committee because the Government have not implemented a European directive adopted by other member states in 2013 that gives criminal suspects a right to access legal advice following arrest.
I could not have put it better myself. My hon. Friend makes an important point.
It is time that we grew up. The Bach commission, with its cross-party members—I suspect some appointments are political and some non-political—chosen for their expertise only, not for their politics, will hopefully come to a view that can save money while providing access to the courts, lawyers and justice. As I have said, we need to do that in a non-partisan, non-political way. I sometimes find that difficult to manage, but it is crucial that we grow up.
Before I finish my remarks, I will mention the point made by my hon. Friend Cat Smith. I think we have seen a drop of 80% in employment tribunals. The hon. Member for Warrington South talked about people in the law profession earning more than the Prime Minister, but we now have employment judges sitting idly in tribunals throughout England and Wales with no work to do because of the fee that needs to be paid for a tribunal to be heard.
Women want to raise serious issues. I think of a case that I advised on pro bono and referred the woman to a solicitor: she had told her employer that she would take maternity leave at some point in the not-too-distant future and he said, “Well, that’s not very convenient. I’m afraid you’ll have to find something else to do for a living.” I think she needed to find £1,300 to get her case to a tribunal, but she could not possibly afford that. I managed to find a solicitor who was prepared to act for her pro bono, but she still did not have the money—it would have taken her several months to save that up.
Sadly, the reality is that employers react to those cases only once the money is paid in. Before that, they do nothing—they are using that as a tactic. Therefore, while terrible employers such as that would have to settle if the case was to be taken to tribunal—they would not get anywhere near success, because they had clearly been discriminatory—because the woman concerned could not get the £1,300 together, she was at the stage of saying, “Fair enough, I give in.” The statute bar in employment cases means that people have to get their act together within three months and she could never have managed to save that money up in that period.
I do not know whether I am making this point well or not, but it is not about saving money because we have employment judges with no work to do. It is purely ideological. There is no reason for it—it does not save a penny.
Does my hon. Friend agree that another consequence is that while there are lots of good employers, bad employers, because of the tribunal fees, can get away with unlawful practices and they have no incentive to change their behaviour to become good employers?
Absolutely. I know the Minister well, I think, and he does not want a situation to arise where employers get away with treating their staff badly. I do not think he wants that for a second, but that is an unintended consequence of the Government’s policy and it needs to change. It comes to something when the Lord Chief Justice comes out of his comfort zone as a senior member of the judiciary and criticises Government policy. It is appalling.
I will finish on this note. The hon. Member for Warrington South—
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned me four times in his remarks, but he is yet to answer the question I put about which changes to the legal aid system the Opposition support. I want to ask him about his interesting comments on residency, because the Opposition reject the proposed changes to be used, at least in part, to prevent prosecutions against British soldiers in Iraq, which among other things led to Al-Sweady. Does he propose any changes to that mechanism, or is he sanguine about the fact that we are the only country in the world that pays people to sue our soldiers? I am genuinely interested in that.
With respect, I am not prepared to go into the hon. Gentleman’s Daily Mail-reading fraternity line. Frankly, that is outrageous. One thing I think the Bach commission will establish is consensus of opinion, so I will not make Opposition policy about the residence test on the hoof, but it is disgraceful that women who have been trafficked will probably be refused access to law as a result of the Government’s proposed changes.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. We have talked about how the country is on a slippery slope on access to justice, but can he name any other country whose criminal justice system pays people through criminal legal aid to sue its own Army?
The hon. Gentleman is desperate to get me on to that. He mentioned fat-cat lawyers who earn more than the Prime Minister, so he was probably referring to the Prime Minister’s brother who is an eminent member of the Bar and Queen’s counsel barrister reported to have earned £1 million. What he does not mention is that some of that £1 million was probably paid privately—it is very unlikely that he earned £1 million from criminal legal aid. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the issue, and I was reluctant to comment on it, but I am afraid he tempted me too much.
I am not going to take a further intervention from the hon. Gentleman, because, frankly, he has nothing to offer that would benefit the debate.
Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon on securing this important and timely debate. We now need a consensus. We need the Government to listen. In my respectful opinion, the new Justice Secretary has had the sense to change policies of his predecessor’s that were wrong, and there are things that he can put in place to mitigate what has been an unmitigated disaster in the justice system. I invite the Minister to respond to the comments that have been made by hon. Members in all parts of the Chamber.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bailey? I congratulate Stephen Kinnock on having secured the debate. I also thank the other hon. Members who have contributed. This important subject is capable of arousing many passions, and I am pleased that the debate, although lively at times, has been conducted in a measured tone. I very much hope that will continue.
Let me be clear at the outset: the Government share the passion for a justice system that works for everyone. I have spoken previously about our commitment to one nation justice, which is fundamental to the rule of law. At the heart of one nation justice is equality. We are committed to making sure that our justice system delivers faster and fairer justice for all citizens, not just some. We are committed to a justice system that safeguards and protects the vulnerable and that works better for victims and witnesses. It must be recognised that legal aid is only one part of the balanced provision of access to justice, but it is nevertheless an important part, and I accept that there is a responsibility on the Government to ensure that it is available for those in the greatest need.
When the programme to reform legal aid commenced in 2010, the scale of the financial challenge facing the Government was unprecedented. The coalition had to find significant savings, which meant making difficult choices. Despite that, we have made sure that legal aid remains available for the highest priority cases, such as those where people’s life or liberty is at stake, where people face the loss of their home, as in cases of domestic violence, or where people’s children might be taken into care. It is also available in relation to the treatment and detention of people experiencing mental health problems and in cases concerning the best interests of people who lack mental capacity.
Tackling domestic violence remains a Government priority. For that reason, we have retained legal aid for the purpose of obtaining urgent protection via an injunction. In addition, in private family law cases—those concerning child arrangements and financial matters—funding may be available for those who will be materially disadvantaged by facing their abuser in court.
I hope hon. Members will accept that it is reasonable to ensure that the correct cases attract funding. However, we have listened and responded to specific concerns. That is why, during the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, we made changes to make evidence easier to obtain. In April 2014, we expanded the list of evidence accepted in applications for legal aid in private family cases. We also extended the definition of health professionals to include psychologists. We made further changes in July 2015, including by adding new offences to the list of domestic violence and child abuse offences. Further regulatory changes ensure that, once a particular form of legal aid has been granted, no further evidence needs to be submitted for someone to receive legal representation for their case. We will, of course, continue to keep the evidence requirements under review.
Mention has been made of exceptional case funding, and funding has been provided where it is required by law under European Union legislation or European convention on human rights regulations.
The Minister explains how legal aid is still available in some of the most urgent situations—for example, when someone’s house is at risk of repossession. However, does that not raise the question, why wait until we get to that stage? Why not provide legal aid earlier, so that people do not get into that mess in the first place?
It is important that the hon. Gentleman recognises that there must be some limit, and I will come in due course to how much money is spent. However, his criticism is ironic, given that he admitted in his speech that there is less expenditure per capita in Scotland than in England and Wales.
The hon. Gentleman did explain the reasons for that, but I have to say that the facts speak for themselves. He should not try to explain away the fact that there is less expenditure per capita in Scotland than in England and Wales—it is easy to be disingenuous in explaining things away. As I will explain later, the fact is that the legal aid budget for England and Wales is one of the largest in the world.
The Minister misses the two key points I made in my speech about per capita spend. First, it is not fair just to compare legal aid spending per capita; we have to look at justice spending overall.
Secondly—this is a matter of fact, not explaining things away—the higher per capita spend in England and Wales is a result of things such as the larger number of expensive fraud cases prosecuted south of the border. The proportion of people eligible for civil legal aid in Scotland is about 75%—well in excess of that in England and Wales. The Minister must also bear it in mind that the financial eligibility rules are more generous and the number of legal cases covered is far broader. He should try to learn lessons from the Scottish jurisdiction, so that savings can be made not by removing all sorts of cases and people from the scope of legal aid, but by achieving efficiencies in the system and other changes.
I would simply say that the hon. Gentleman should look at some of the cases in England and Wales. He will find that some of the fraud cases in this jurisdiction are pretty complex. However, I am grateful to him for saying that it is important that we look at matters from an overall perspective. With the best will in the world, some of those who have spoken already have not done so—they have seen legal aid in a narrow confine, rather than from the overall perspective the hon. Gentleman speaks of.
Even after the reforms we have put in place, we still have a very generous legal aid system, compared with other countries. Last year we spent more than £1.6 billion on legal aid, which is about a quarter of the Ministry of Justice’s departmental expenditure. As I said, that is one of the most generous legal aid budgets in the world.
Is it not the case, though, that the Ministry of Justice budget has been cut? Therefore, to boast that the Government are spending that proportion, when the overall amount of money has been reduced, is not really a boast at all.
May I gently tell the hon. Lady that, were it not for the economic mess that the Labour Government left this country in—[Interruption.] Labour Members may well shrug their shoulders, but the reality is that, were it not for the mess they left and their economic mismanagement, we would not have had to take the tough decisions that we are having to take. I will return later to the views the Labour shadow justice team has expressed on the record about whether the cuts should have been made.
During the previous Parliament the coalition Government proposed a civil legal aid residence test, which has been referred to. The Government continue to believe that individuals should have a strong connection to the UK to benefit from our civil legal aid scheme, and intend to implement the residence test following recent success in the courts. I should add that during the previous Parliament the Government were particularly careful to listen to, and take into account, concerns that were raised about the residence test. As a result a number of modifications and exceptions were proposed, including in cases involving particularly vulnerable individuals. We believe that the proposed residence test, with specific exceptions for vulnerable groups, is both fair and appropriate. It has to be right that when British taxpayers’ money is being used for legal aid, the recipient of the legal aid should have a strong connection to our country.
Clearly, we have said that someone has to be here for a minimum of 12 months. We will ensure that when an application is made that criterion is fulfilled. If the person is in one of the exceptional categories the criterion will not apply.
The hon. Gentleman is an experienced barrister and an experienced politician. He will appreciate that the function of this House is to put policy into implementation, by ensuring that it becomes law. The practical process will need to be thought out—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”]—as is the case with every other measure introduced by the present and previous Governments, and during the 13 years when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in government, and even before that. That is something that will be dealt with and resolved.
Jim Shannon, for whom I have huge respect and regard, spoke passionately; but he will of course be aware that the matter is a devolved one. I wish him well in his dealings with David Ford, with whom I too have had dealings. To the extent that it will help, I will certainly tell him the next time I see him that the hon. Gentleman was speaking passionately and would like him to give a sympathetic ear when he raises the issue. Stuart C. McDonald will appreciate that, again, the issue is a devolved one; but he has put his views on record—including in our little dialogue during my speech.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend David Mowat for bringing a realistic perspective to the debate, and for pointing out the reality of the situation. He repeatedly asked the shadow Justice Minister which of the cuts that we have made his party would reverse. I am not surprised that no reply was forthcoming, because in an interview with The Guardian on
“I don’t have a magic wand to wave. I can’t commit to reverse the £600m cuts to legal aid made by the Tories and Lib Dems. We will still have to take tough decisions on reducing the deficit.”
However, it was not only the former shadow Justice Secretary who took that view. The person in his team dealing specifically with legal aid, Andy Slaughter, was interviewed by John Hyde of The Law Society Gazette on
“‘We’re not going to get in a Tardis and go back to before,’ he said. ‘We are in a world where resources are tight and it would not be right to pretend otherwise.’”
The article goes on:
“Slaughter conceded that the Labour party would have been forced to make cuts to family law funding and promote mediation as a cheaper option. He added that a Labour government would seek to promote and improve mediation services on offer.”
He is quoted as saying:
“‘We are going to be honest about the tightness of resources—we can’t tackle everything immediately and other elements”— of public spending—
“will have a higher place in the queue.’”
The hon. Lady seeks to justify the fact that her party says it will not make cuts reversals of £600 million by saying, “There you are.” Of course we support mediation. In fact we have said that in family cases where there are divorces, rather than the two separating parties engaging solicitors and then barristers, and then going to court—all paid for by the taxpayer—it is far better for them to sit around a table, trying to have a constructive dialogue with mediation. That way of reaching a solution is preferable.
Given that the shadow team has said it would not make any cuts, perhaps its members could reflect on whether the next time one of them speaks they might be supportive of our proposals, rather than simply saying, “Don’t reduce.”
Will the Minister concede at least that the leader of the Labour party has set up the Bach commission, to look at the issue of access to justice? It would be constructive for Ministers at least to acknowledge that. It is true that my colleagues said previously that they could not just wave a magic wand—of course not; but some of the cuts were badly made and chaotic. Areas—swathes—were taken out of the scope of legal aid, with the consequence that the most vulnerable people suffered; and the reality was that that did not really save money.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments I just made—that his party’s shadow team said it would not reverse any of the cuts. That kind of contradicts what he says; but as far as Willy Bach is concerned—and he is a man for whom I have much respect—I wish him well with his commission. Karl Turner will be aware that we have said there will be a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 three to five years from its implementation. That will be a thorough review in relation to the way forward.
I want to mention some other points made in the debate. The hon. Member for Aberavon referred to some research conducted by Rights of Women, showing that 38% or 39% of women do not have the evidence needed to apply for legal aid. That research was based on responses from 61 people, which I hope even the hon. Gentleman will agree is a small sample—much smaller than researchers would ordinarily use to generalise across the wider population.
There is much debate about the amount of work available and the number of lawyers around to do it. The Law Society has itself accepted that there are far too many people chasing too little criminal work. We must recognise that the legal profession needs to take a wider look—not just to legal aid—at how things are going. In a relatively short time the structure of the legal profession has changed. There was a time when there were simply solicitors, barristers and legal executives; but now barristers in particular face competition from solicitors who have higher rights of audience than previously. There are more people wanting to qualify as barristers, as well. Alternative business structures are coming on the scene. That means that more and more people are chasing the same amount of work.
The point is not that there is not sufficient work for barristers to do, but that there is no legal aid available to enable people who need legal advice to go to a lawyer and get help. We have more people going to prison than for many years, and more people going into the criminal justice system. There is plenty of work; it is just that those people cannot afford anyone to represent them.
Perhaps the hon. Lady missed the point when I said that we have one of the largest legal aid budgets in the world, at £1.6 billion. I would say that that is capable of buying a substantial amount of legal aid assistance and advocacy for people. I go back to the comment from the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East about the importance of looking at matters in the round, from a broader perspective.
Much has been said about employment tribunal fees and the fact that people are not using employment tribunals any more. There should be some recognition of the ACAS early conciliation process, which did not exist before but has dealt with some 83,000 cases in the 12 months since it was introduced. There should also be some recognition of the fact that the economy is improving, and that more jobs are being created out there. It is always the case, looking back at the trend of such things, that there is less demand for employment tribunals when the economy is improving. People should not overlook the fact that more than 80,000 cases have been dealt with by ACAS’s early conciliation process. Furthermore, looking at matters in the round, let us not forget that this Government are committed to spending some £700 million on reforming the courts system, which means there will be a better way of accessing justice than exists at the moment.
Coming back to the words in the title of this debate, we very much hope that the reforms will particularly assist vulnerable people, including victims, witnesses and others. The reforms will mean, for example, that those people do not have to attend a court to give evidence, but can instead go to a convenient location close to them and give evidence by video conferencing. We will also make more use of modern technology in a broader perspective. We already have prisoners giving evidence from prisons, which avoids getting caught up in traffic jams and all the additional security costs that taking them to court would entail.
Given the changes that are being introduced and the impact they will have in real time, does the Minister not agree that waiting for three to five years before doing a review of LASPO is simply evidence of being asleep at the wheel? A review of LASPO needs to be brought forward in a far shorter timeframe.
It is important to recognise that LASPO made a huge change to the whole structure of the legal aid system. It is important that we ensure the changes have sufficient time to bed in, in order to make a proper assessment of whether they have worked. As it happens, the three to five year period is more or less approaching us, and we will do the review in 2016 to 2018, but it is important that we allow such fundamental changes to take place.
I am afraid I cannot tell the hon. Lady when the review will be. Clearly, we are giving much thought to that. We want to get it right and to ensure that the changes we have made already have the effect we wanted. If necessary, we will make changes. As I say, the timing of the review is yet to be decided, but we are committed to doing it and will do so.
I am mindful that the hon. Member for Aberavon must have an opportunity to wind up, so I will simply conclude by saying that I hope hon. Members will appreciate this Government’s commitment to a one nation justice system that safeguards and protects the vulnerable, supported by a strong and sustainable legal aid system to provide advice and support for the highest priority cases. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aberavon for securing the debate and to all other Members who have spoken.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bailey. I thank all hon. Members present today for some truly engaging and insightful contributions to this vital debate. We have heard a range of comments about the comparison between our system and others and the professed commitment to a one nation justice system, as well as a passionate exchange of views about the real role of a legal and justice system.
A conclusion from my point of view is that there seems to be very little traction in comparing other systems to ours; it is like comparing apples to pears. Another conclusion I draw is that change and reform are absolutely fine. Nobody thinks our system should be static and stuck in the mud, but if we are going to change, we do not change simply by slashing and burning. We change by having a proper plan B and a sustainable system to put in as a replacement, rather than simply salami-slicing across the current system. It seems we are creating a truly two nation justice system, and if that happens, it will be a tragedy.
We have seen some evidence of listening from the Government. The screeching U-turn that the Justice Secretary performed on the scrapping of criminal court charges is evidence of such listening, and Opposition Members certainly welcome that. Rather than diving down into the weeds, I will conclude by saying that a justice system needs to pass four key tests. First, it must uphold the belief that someone is innocent until proven guilty. Secondly, everyone should have access to justice, regardless of their means. Thirdly, it is essential that we have confidence that the true perpetrators of crime have been found guilty and are not walking the streets. Fourthly, the system must deliver value for money for the taxpayer.
I am afraid that on all four of those tests, the Government are failing. We hope they will listen carefully to the proposals we have made today about the changes that are required. I also hope that we can, as my hon. Friend Karl Turner said, try to put politics aside and work together to create a more equitable, efficient and fair justice system.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered access to justice for vulnerable people.