On Wednesday 10 May 2017, Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) held a pre-general election debate at Garden Court Chambers in London on Access to Justice After the Election, with representatives of the main political parties setting out their respective policies on legal aid and access to justice.
The panel consisted of:
- Mark Trafford QC, from the Society of Conservative Lawyers and a barrister at 23 Essex Street;
- Catherine Atkinson, from the Society of Labour Lawyers and a barrister at 9 Gough Square;
- Alistair Webster QC, from the Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association and a barrister at Lincoln House Chambers; and
- Charley Pattison, the Green Party Justice spokesperson and a barrister at Queen Square Chambers.
Each of the panellists is a barrister with a practice in area(s) of law with a legal aid component and three out of four are prospective parliamentary candidates standing in the 2017 general election.
YLAL co-chair Oliver Carter introduced the event with an overview of the cuts to legal aid over the last few years as well as covering some of the changes to the justice system as a whole. He reminded us that in January, the Minister for Legal Aid, Oliver Heald, had announced that the government would finally commence a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). Following this introduction, the format for the debate – chaired by YLAL co-chair Rachel Francis – was an opening speech from each panel member, before questions from the floor and a final two minute pitch from each speaker to close.
Charley Pattison said that Green Party policy is made at grassroots level, and the underlying principle of equality applies to all of their policies, which are evidence-based. She noted that everyone was suffering from the assault of government cuts and that it was unacceptable that legal advice deserts exist. She confirmed that the Green Party would move to make equality before the law a fundamental right as they believe that access to justice is integral to democracy. They would also reverse the 2013 cuts to legal aid and restore legal aid for immigration and asylum to a reasonable level, as part of a holistic approach to justice.
Mark Trafford QC reminded us that at the time of his call to the bar in 1992, people were already declaring careers over at the bar and in the solicitors' profession, yet here we were 25 years later. He then told us, paraphrasing the words of former United States Attorney General, Robert Francis Kennedy, not to look back and ask why, but to look forward and ask why not: much had gone wrong in the past, under governments of both parties. However, looking forward means looking beyond law to the wider economy, and suggested investment and modernisation is required as the overall ‘envelope’ of legal aid spending is unlikely to change (a prediction not a policy, he was keen to stress). This, in his view, means utilising digital technology for smaller claims, releasing resources for bigger claims. We were invited to consider the example of eBay which handles 60 million disputes a year without lawyers. In short, he emphasised the need to change the legal landscape and to modernise the system
Catherine Atkinson said the public has a choice between a Labour or a Conservative government – between a government that believes in access to justice and one that slashes it. She said that she understood why Mark Trafford asked us not to look back because of the particular harm done to justice under the Conservative and Coalition governments: that this was a 34% cut. She pointed us to a 2015 Justice Select Committee report which said the reforms had failed to target legal aid to those that need it most or deliver value for money. We have got a two-tier system that removes the voice from the voiceless. This is a false economy as the costs of crisis on government outweigh the savings and hit harder in advice deserts. Labour, on the other hand, is committed to increase spending on legal aid as the fourth pillar of the welfare state, to ensure minimum standards and to repeal employment tribunal fees. She also referred to the ongoing work of the Bach Commission on Access to Justice, which Jeremy Corbyn set up upon his appointment at leader of the Labour Party.
Alistair Webster QC told us that the rule of law is, for the Liberal Democrats, one of the most important functions of the state. He said that the whole justice system is deteriorating: courts closing, fees increasing, access to justice decreasing for everyone apart from wealthy companies in commercial disputes. He proposed that policies should be more imaginative than simply putting more money back into legal aid and argued that this is what the Liberal Democrat manifesto will achieve. Webster also reminded us that the current trend of legal aid cuts had started with the previous Labour government. He conceded that his own party's record in government had not been great, but that they were “prisoners on a bus” being driven by someone else during the Coalition years. He said that things had deteriorated in the past 20 years to where we were now: court fees that are prohibitive to individuals, a privatised prison service and morale of practitioners and judiciary at rock bottom. The policies he outlined included seeking alternative funding models for litigation, for example companies paying a premium in the case of criminal fraud, and reducing prisoner numbers and instead placing a focus on rehabilitation. The Liberal Democrats would use savings from these measures to fund the legal aid system.
The issues raised in questions from the audience included proposals to extend court opening hours, access to the profession for aspiring lawyers and the promised review of LASPO.
On the possibility of extending court hours, Mark Trafford was the only speaker who did not actively disagree with the proposal. He suggested that it was worth trying in a pilot as it was not yet known how it would pan out. Alistair Webster stated that it would be disastrous and described the proposal as a “non-starter”. Charley Pattison expressed concerns that the proposal would disproportionately affect women who statistically still do most of the childcare. Catherine Atkinson agreed, arguing that in addition to extended hours, many local courts are closing down – meaning that for some people the cost of travelling to court is simply too expensive.
Diversity in and access to the legal profession was also subject to a lively discussion. Alistair Webster emphasised the importance of focusing on education from the early ages, and discussed the Bar Council's proposals to introduce long distance learning and restrict the number of entrants into the second half of the Bar Professional Training Course, to avoid masses of aspiring barristers unable to find work after spending many thousands of pounds on training.
Catherine Atkinson focused on Labour's proposals to ban unpaid internships and scrap tuition fees in order to make education and training more accessible to people from low-income backgrounds. Mark Trafford argued that diversity in the profession has drastically improved already, focusing largely on the plans to increase gender diversity among the judiciary. Charley Pattison also focused on the cost of education and training.
All of the speakers echoed an audience member’s concerns that more needed to be done to increase social mobility within the legal profession. The panel raised issues such as the need to ensure that lawyers are sufficiently remunerated to make the profession attractive. They also acknowledged that the profession is losing out on talented people who cannot afford to take the risk of paying the high fees for law school.
The speakers also discussed the possibility of a review of LASPO, with all agreeing that LASPO should be reviewed. Mark Trafford hoped that money would be redistributed if the review identified problems with the current system. Alistair Webster clearly stated that a review was needed due to LASPO being a destructive piece of legislation. Catherine Atkinson referred to the upcoming report from the Bach Commission which aims to identify minimum standards for access to justice and legal aid. Charley Pattison stated that review would confirm that the current system is not working.
Following the debate, the representatives were given a final opportunity to persuade us why we should vote for their party, passionately summarising their parties' positions on access to justice and the overall future of the country.
The panellists summed up in reverse order to their opening speeches: Alistair Webster pitched for a Liberal Democrat opposition; Catherine Atkinson presented Labour as constructive and positive with respect to access to justice, even from opposition; Mark Trafford invited us to make a difference by being involved and emphasised that the future entailed modernisation; and Charley Pattison offered us progressive policies from the Green Party, especially with respect to prisons and access to justice.
With thanks to YLAL members Kate Smith, Robin Younghusband and Siobhan Poll for preparing these minutes.