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Labour legal aid review – time for change?

On 3 November Lord Bach and Karl Turner MP hosted the launch of a major Labour consultation and review of its policy on legal aid. It was their view that Labour had not had enough to say about legal aid before the general election and that this needed to be addressed.

The launch was an open meeting in Parliament where all were invited to give their views. The meeting was extremely well attended with representatives from the Legal Education Foundation, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, the Law Society, Legal Action Group, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Housing Law Practitioners Association, Law Centres, CABx, Young Legal Aid Lawyers, the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, and more.

It was perhaps an indication of how seriously Labour say they are taking this issue that Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party, Lord Falconer, Shadow Lord Chancellor, and John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor, all also attended the meeting at various points.

Legal aid is for people, not lawyers

The meeting lasted for several hours and many issues were discussed. However, its members seemed united in one thing: the government’s cuts to legal aid have been harmful to our society, and the voices of ordinary people, not lawyers, need to be heard. Although it could be pointed out that nearly everyone present appeared to be involved in the legal profession in some way, it was clear that more needs to be done to highlight the fact that the cuts affect everyone.

Legal aid is a right

There were some interesting debates: should any Labour policy focus on demonstrating how legal aid helps the poorest and most vulnerable in society? Or should the message be that legal aid exists for everyone’s benefit?

It was pointed out by many that legal aid was first introduced by Clement Attlee as part of his welfare reforms, alongside the creation of the NHS and the guaranteed right to free education. Over time the reputation of legal services appears to have become secondary to these other rights, which most people would be horrified to see dismantled, even though legal aid can help people with some of the most serious problems a person can face during their lifetime.

Legal aid helps those in need, not just ‘criminals’

Others pointed out that the Conservative government appears to have been quite successful in creating an impression that legal aid only helps wrongdoers, or those who ‘abuse’ their rights and privileges. It was felt that Labour should combat this misconception as a matter of priority.

Misconception – ‘the most expensive legal aid system in the world’

A further misconception that it was felt should be challenged is the repeated claim that we have (or had) the most expensive legal aid system in the world. This is a message that has been successfully used to justify the cuts, even though it is based on a false assumption that all legal systems operate in the same way. England and Wales has an adversarial legal system, where both parties prepare their cases and present them to the court. This means that most of the cost of the legal process is borne by the parties. In other countries, particularly in Europe, an ‘inquisitorial’ system is used, where the judiciary makes most of the enquiries. Naturally, in these systems, the cost of the process is borne by the courts and there is less work for lawyers. However, on balance both systems are more or less equal in terms of cost so the claim that our legal aid system is disproportionately expensive is misconceived.

The future?

Time will tell what Labour will come up with. In the meantime, they are still inviting suggestions from anyone who wishes to contribute and aim to produce a draft proposal in April 2016, with a final policy document to be published for the 2016 party conference.