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The Conservative Record on Justice

20/07/2016 17:21 | Updated 20 July 2016

"The grim situation has not improved." That was the finding of Peter Clarke in his first annual report as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, published yesterday.

A few hours earlier I met Steve Gillan, the General Secretary of the Prison Officers Association, and discussed with him the difficult job faced by low-paid new recruits working in prisons, after a short training programme. This is the context for the forthcoming Prisons and Courts Reform Bill.

This is one example. The upshot of Conservative-led Government since 2010 has been to put up barriers in the way of access to justice and to create chaos in the Ministry.

Cuts in the Ministry's funding have meant cuts in services like legal aid, the sell-off of court buildings, the introduction of new and increased Court and Tribunal fees and the growing role of the private sector in the probation service and in our understaffed prisons.

As a result of the Conservative Government's political choices, the sector is under pressure.

But despite reversing the prisoners' book ban and suspending the criminal courts charge, Michael Gove did not fix his Ministry.

Judges are not happy. Advocates are not happy. Those seeking representation are not happy. The staff overseeing prison, probation and rehabilitation are - very understandably - anything but happy.

And now the new Secretary of State Liz Truss is now embroiled in a row with her now-departed Lords Spokesperson Lord Faulks and the Conservative Justice Committee Chair Bob Neill about her qualification for the post of Lord Chancellor.

What we need is a Secretary of State focused on the job and who listens to the sector.

Since 2010 we have seen major attacks on publicly-funded legal services.

First, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act removed substantial areas of civil law from the scope of legal aid, then further cuts were implemented affecting criminal law, judicial review and immigration.

Chris Grayling's tenure as Secretary of State also saw the implementation - abandoned by his successor, Michael Gove - of the Criminal Courts Charge which required those convicted of offences to pay unrealistic amounts of money towards the running of the courts service.

The cumulative result of these measures has been to restrict access to justice for hundreds of thousands of people.

Moreover, it is often those who are least equipped to advance their own cases who have been harmed: welfare benefits claimants; immigrants; prisoners; and employees facing problems at work.

As a result of Court and Tribunal fees, those on low incomes are now less likely to apply to seek redress when they have workplace concerns.

And too often this is women, who have a sex discrimination claim, maybe pregnancy related, or black and minority ethnic individuals.
Undoubtedly, government should avoid the need for people to seek resolution through the courts by better first-instance decision making.

For example, the Department for Work and Pensions' own figures showed that for the last quarter of 2014, 52% of those who appealed 'fit to work' decisions were successful. However, legal assistance should still be available when that decision fails.

Research varies but the Legal Aid Group has estimated that for every pound the state spends on legal aid saves six pounds elsewhere.

And many of the Government's measures were also nakedly designed to avoid accountability and ease the passage of contentious legislative business.

Rather than see Judicial Review as an important constitutional check on arbitrary and unlawful acts by the Executive, Chris Grayling viewed it as a nuisance carried out by "left-wing lawyers".

There was little evidence that he had any sensitivity for the oath required of every Lord Chancellor requiring respect for the rule of law.

Michael Gove's time as Justice Secretary was not without its achievements but under his tenure further and increased Employment Tribunal fees have been pushed, putting an unaffordable price tag on justice.

A Labour Government with Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister will abolish Employment Tribunal fees. But that is not the extent of our ambitions for access to justice. More widely, we need to lift the barriers to justice put in place by the Conservative Government and its Coalition predecessor. We need to ensure that those who require legal aid can receive it and we need to protect the ability of the population to hold Government to account.

So in Parliament, our immediate legislative task is to scrutinise the upcoming Prisons and Courts Reform Bill. At the moment, we don't know which Conservative Minister is responsible. But our role is to ensure it effectively deals with what HM Inspector calls "unacceptably violent and dangerous places".

And moving forward we need to ensure we are in a position to deliver the access to justice people that our society needs and deserves.

I understand how important the principle of the rule of law is. Before being elected as an MP, I spent 10 years in private practice as an employment lawyer.

Day in, day out I saw the financial and emotional pressure that legal disputes can cause.

Legal aid was championed by the 1945-1951 Labour government following the recommendations of the Rushcliffe Commission.

We often refer to publicly funded legal services as the 'Fourth Pillar of the Welfare State' and it is that sentiment which I believe needs to inform our approach to its provision.

That is why Lord Bach is currently leading for the Labour Party on our commission reviewing access to justice.

My priority as Shadow Justice Secretary will be to put forward a credible plan for publicly funded legal advice which takes as its starting point the needs of our society.

This will be the foundation upon which our Party delivers true access to justice for all.

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