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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:59 am on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 9:59 am, 19th January 2016

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.