[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair] — Access to Justice: Vulnerable People

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Labour, Aberavon 9:30 am, 19th January 2016

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.