Lord Bach’s Access to Justice Commission has published its final report, available here. It is a detailed and thoughtful report, which should provoke further debate about the impact on access to justice – and particularly those who can’t get it – following the reforms of recent years. There is a lengthy list of recommendations, which fall into three main categories:
- The creation of a new statutory enforceable “right to justice” and the creation of a Justice Commission
- Reform of the legal aid scheme, including widening and simplifying the means test and contributions, increasing legal aid scope to restore most family, some immigration, and cases involving children, as well as reforms to judicial review, inquest and exceptional case funding, and replacing the LAA with an independent body and simplifying administration
- Wider and better public legal education and a universal advice and information portal.
Sir Henry Brooke, the retired Court of Appeal judge, was one of the commissioners. Since the publication of the report he has posted a series of blogs, well worth reading, looking at some of the background to the Commission’s recommendations.
The major parties have now published their manifestos for the forthcoming general election. This is what they have to say about legal aid.
The Conservative manifesto says:
- Publicly-funded advocates will have specialist training in handling victims before taking on serious sexual offences cases.
- To ensure that the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families over the last twenty years is not repeated, we will introduce an independent public advocate, who will act for bereaved families after a public disaster and support them at public inquests
- We will strengthen legal services regulation and restrict legal aid for unscrupulous law firms that issue vexatious legal claims against the armed forces
The Labour manifesto says:
- Labour will immediately re-establish early advice entitlements in the Family Courts. The shameful consequences of withdrawal have included a requirement for victims of domestic abuse to pay doctors for certification of their injuries. Labour’s plans will remove that requirement. At the same time, we will legislate to prohibit the cross examination of victims of domestic violence by their abuser in certain circumstances.
- We will reintroduce funding for the preparation of judicial review cases. Judicial review is an important way of holding government to account. There are sufficient safeguards to discourage unmeritorious cases.
- We will review the legal aid means tests, including the capital test for those on income-related benefits.
- Labour will consider the reinstatement of other legal aid entitlements after receiving the final recommendations of the Access to Justice Commission led by Lord Bach.
The Lib Dem manifesto says the party will:
- Conduct an urgent and comprehensive review of the effects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act on access to justice, particularly funding for social welfare appeals, and domestic violence and exceptional cases
- Secure further funding for criminal legal aid from sources other than the taxpayer, including insurance for company directors, and changes to restraint orders.
UKIP and the Green Party make no mention of legal aid in their manifestos.
The Court of Appeal recently decided that the existing domestic abuse gateway to private law family legal aid was unlawful because:
- It only permitted evidence within the last two years;
- It had no mechanism for proving financial abuse.
In a written statement to Parliament today, the minister gave the government’s response.
It has laid new regulations, coming into force on Monday 25 April, extending the two year period to five years, and including provision for financial abuse. It will also review the needs of victims of domestic abuse with a view to developing “evidence based” replacement regulations in the long term.