The justice system is in “crisis” as tens of thousands of people have been unable to defend their rights due to cuts to legal aid and “excessively stringent” eligibility requirements, a major report shows.
The Bach Commission, chaired by Labour former justice minister Lord Bach has called for a “significantly simpler and more generous” legal aid scheme. It claimed that the Government's cuts had gone far further than originally envisaged.
For its report, which was commissioned by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership, it spoke to more than 100 individuals and organisations with special expertise in all parts of the justice system over the course of two years.
It hoped to find solutions that will restore access to justice as a fundamental public entitlement.
Its report called for the creation of a new legally enforceable “right to justice”, which would guarantee people “reasonable legal assistance” without incurring costs they cannot afford.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Prosecution of Offenders Act, passed in 2012, had been expected to save £450m a year in real terms — but last year spending was down £950m compared with 2010.
“The commission has found that the justice system is in crisis," the report states. "Most immediately, people are being denied access to justice because the scope of legal aid has been dramatically reduced and eligibility requirements made excessively stringent.”
Among its detailed recommendations, was the call for anyone who receives a means-tested benefit to automatically qualify for legal aid.
It also called for the creation of a new independent justice commission to monitor and enforce the right to justice.
In light of the findings, Lord Bach said: ”No person should be denied justice simply because they cannot afford it. We need a new act which defends and extends the right to justice, and we need a new body tasked with implementing it.“
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said Labour would now bring forward detailed plans setting out how it would take forward the commission's recommendations in Government.
“Tens of thousands of people have been priced out of defending their rights in recent years as a result of swingeing Conservative government cuts in the justice sector, that have hit the most vulnerable hardest,” he said.
“They should now stop dragging their feet and get on with publishing its own delayed review into its legal aid changes. There is much in Lord Bach's report that the Government could implement ahead of the next election if it is serious about restoring access to justice.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We will consider the findings in the Bach Commission’s Report when they are published. Maintaining access to justice remains absolutely vital and continues to be at the heart of our reforms.”