COMMENT: In just five years of David Cameron, Ken Clark and Chris Grayling the Coalition have run the justice system into the ground. Prisons are overcrowded and understaffed meaning suicides and violence are up and work and training down. The reckless privatisation and fragmentation of the probation service could leave dangerous and violent offenders without proper supervision.
Rushed changes to our voting system has left almost 1 million people, including hundreds of thousands of young people, falling of the electoral register. And in giving Grayling free rein to attack the rule of law and access to justice, the Prime Minister has shown his contempt for people’s individual rights. Perhaps no surprise from the man who didn’t know what Magna Carta meant.
Ensuring people have access to justice is a fundamental part of our democracy; that everyone, regardless of their personal circumstances, should be entitled to receive equal treatment under the law.
But under Cameron, the Conservative Party act like access to justice, rather than being universal, should be a privilege extended to just a wealthy few. All this has been done with the support of Liberal Democrat votes and Liberal Democrat ministers.
Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats surely lost any remaining credibility as defenders of civil liberties when they forced through plans to neuter judicial review last month, despite the clearest warnings from the House of Lords, our leading judges and lawyers and civil society organisations.
Labour will stick to current spending limits in 2015/16 – and there will be no unfunded spending commitments in our manifesto. But that doesn’t mean we must continue with the same approach to access to justice. On the contrary.
We will scrap the Government’s plans to build a super-borstal for boys and girls as young as 12. We will lower to the voting age to 16, the first expansion of the franchise since 1970. And last week we announced how we will start to repair one of Grayling’s worst disasters as Justice Secretary, the flawed plans for criminal legal aid procurement.
Legal aid, both civil and criminal, has been relentlessly attacked by this Government. Of course some reform was necessary, but too much of what the government has done has appeared ideological and will prove counter-productive.
For example, in 2012 the LASPO Act raised the eligibility threshold for victims of domestic violence – a move which the director of the Rights of Women charity referred to as a ‘fundamental attack on the rule of law’ and many fear has left thousands of women unable to receive crucial legal advice.
More recently, Grayling has said he will press ahead with plans to reform the procurement of criminal legal aid, despite his own independent experts telling him it is a bad idea.
Labour have been clear that the current legal market is in need of reform but the way the Government has gone about its procurement plans risks depriving people of access to justice.
That is why we made this announcement that a Labour Government would abandon immediately the planned implementation of the proposed two-tier contracts for criminal legal aid and review the second fee cut which Grayling was set to implement later this year.
We would do this by working closely with the legal professions, the judiciary and others who work in the justice system to find a more sustainable method for the future.
We made this announcement because, although we know there won’t be more money to spend, we believe a different approach is possible – one which upholds the principle of access to justice and reasserts its primacy in our legal system.
We are confident, that by working together, we will find a sustainable and effective model for procuring criminal legal aid.
Access to quality legal representation is about fairness and delivering justice. Only a Labour government will defend and restore that right.
Andy Slaughter MP is the Labour MP for Hammersmith and Shadow Justice Minister