People should have a right to justice they can afford, according to a major report on access to justice supported by the Labour Party.
Among 25 recommendations, the Bach Commission – headed by former justice minister Lord Willy Bach – called for immediate action to fix problems with the Legal Aid Agency’s Client and Costs Management System (CCMS), which has been subjected to persistent criticism, not least from the ACL’s Legal Aid Group.
The commission – which has taken two years to examine the evidence before reporting – found that cuts to legal aid have created a two-tier justice system where the poorest go without representation or advice.
It called on the government and other political parties to ensure minimum standards on access to justice were upheld through a new Right to Justice Act. This would codify existing rights to justice and establish a new right for individuals to receive reasonable legal assistance without costs they cannot afford. A new justice commission would monitor and enforce the new right.
To make the act a reality, the commission also set out an immediate action plan for the government to: widen the scope of legal aid, with a focus on early legal help, and to include people who are in a position to pay part of their legal costs; reform the eligibility requirements for legal aid to make it simpler and more generous; replace the Legal Aid Agency with an independent body; and improve the public’s understanding of the law.
On CCMS, the report said many people had told the commission that the old paper system worked better. “Under the old system, providers could fill in a four-page form and expect to hear the result of an application on the same day if it was an emergency request.
“Under the new system, if the CCMS is working (it regularly crashes), practitioners have to fill in a 13-page form which can take days or weeks to complete – even before the wait for the result. And, at the end of the laborious process, providers are not adequately remunerated for the time spent collating the necessary evidence and completing the form.”
The commission heard from a range of lawyers who detailed “the predictable consequences of this system”. The Mary Ward Legal Centre in north London, for example, wrote that “trying to get paid by the Legal Aid Agency at the end of a case can be as much of a battle as getting the legal aid granted in the first place”.
The commission recommended that “immediate action is taken to fix problems with the CCMS. This should be done by working directly with a group of users to identify, develop and implement solutions so that it is fit for purpose”.
Another recommendation was that the government should commission an independent review of the state of the legal aid profession and its continued viability.
The cost of the reforms would be £120m for widening the scope of early legal help; £110m for extending eligibility for civil legal aid; £60m for limited widening of the scope of civil legal representation; and £50m for a national fund for advice services.
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon pledged that Labour would take forward the recommendations in government.
Bach Commission members included former Court of Appeal judge Sir Henry Brooke, Legal Aid Practitioners Group director Carol Storer, Julie Bishop, director of the UK Law Centres Network and a number of high-profile legal aid lawyers.