Access to justice should be considered a fundamental right for all. But that right has been eroded with severe consequences for many of our fellow citizens.
As the government has stripped away security in social housing and made the benefits system more punitive it is often the poorest and most marginalised who find themselves unable to receive basic advice or representation when they face legal problems.
Likewise the deeply concerning rise in unsecured personal debt means many low paid workers are struggling with unsustainable problems that require support and legal advice.
That is why one of the first decisions I made as Leader was to invite Lord Willy Bach, the former Shadow Attorney General, to undertake an immediate review of the Government’s five year assault on Legal Aid.
It has gone from bad to worse for the Ministry of Justice on legal aid. Last year, in a devastating report from the National Audit Office, it was revealed that the Government’s implementation of the reforms to civil legal aid may not have even delivered better overall value for money for the taxpayer.
It must be clear to everyone by now that slashing legal aid in that way not only left thousands unable to get suitable legal advice but it also could have cost the state more in the long run.
I also want to pay tribute to the decent and dedicated young legal aid lawyers.
They are great campaigners.
I was pleased to work with them as a local MP and previously as a member of the Justice Select Committee.
I have seen that in my own surgery as a constituency MP and through a close relationship with my own excellent law centre in Islington, strongly supported by the local council as legal aid funding has been devastated.
Lord Bach’s review will look at all of these areas.
Other members of the commission, who were selected for their experience and expertise in this area, include Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson DBE, BL; Hillsborough lawyer Raju Bhatt; Director of the Law Centres Federation Julie Bishop; Managing Director of Scott-Moncrieff and Associates Nicola Mackintosh QC; Carol Storer OBE; and many others.
Two days ago the Commission heard from the Chairman of the Bar Council. Labour will be studying that evidence very carefully.
We will soon be issuing a call for written evidence for Lord Bach’s review through the Fabian Society which is collating the research. The Prime Minister has demonised you as fat-cats and ambulance chasers. I want to hear your voice and for you to play a part in our legal aid review.
Michael Gove has talked about the need to deliver a “one-nation justice system” which delivers access to all. I could not agree with him more but the Tory track record on this is one of utter failure.
However we must recognise the changes that have taken place since Mr Gove took charge at the Ministry of Justice. These are not attributable to individual beneficence but to campaigning by the legal profession and the Labour opposition.
The Government abandoned plans to build a mini-borstal for children, scrapped a ban on sending books to prisoners, jettisoned the criminal courts charge after heavy criticism – and, most controversially of all, was finally shamed into terminating the bid to provide services for Saudi Arabia’s prison system.
Then last month, after a dynamic campaign from the Justice Alliance and many others, we welcomed the latest U-turn on the two-tier contracts for criminal legal aid debacle and also welcomed the decision to suspend the second fee cut.
There can be no let-up in our scrutiny of government proposals, and our campaigning for a justice system that works for all.
Soon we will see a consultation document for the proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act. We must all unite to defeat any attempt to weaken human rights in this country.
The Safety in Custody figures released last month revealed that serious assaults against prison staff have more than doubled since 2012. It is unacceptable that our prison officers face that level of threat in the workplace.
And it is clear that the consequences of Part One of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) are disastrous, yet the Government refuses to review the way in which the Act is working. That review should be brought forward immediately and action should be taken to assist the most vulnerable.
Legal aid has been referred to as the forgotten pillar of the welfare state. It is time to challenge that perception. The principles of access to justice and human rights for all is precisely for what Labour stands. That is what I stand for.