The right to justice should be enshrined in an Act of Parliament to ensure that nobody is denied legal assistance because they cannot afford it, according to the final report of the Bach Commission.
The commission – which was set up by Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 and headed by former Labour justice minister Lord Willy Bach – concluded that problems with the justice system were so wide that only legislation was sufficient to guarantee fundamental rights.
The Labour-affiliated think tank The Fabian Society, which published the report, estimated that the cost of the report’s proposals was about £400m a year, while it said legal aid spending last year was £950m less than in 2010.
A Right to Justice Act would be monitored and enforced by a new body, the Justice Commission.
The law would “codify our existing rights to justice and establish a new right for individuals to receive legal assistance”. The right would cover “information and advice through to legal representation”.
After interviewing more than 100 individuals and organisations with knowledge of the justice system, the commission concluded the present system was “in crisis” and that eligibility requirements under the LASPO legal aid rules were “excessively stringent”.
Problems ranged from “insufficient public legal education and a shrinking information and advice sector to unwieldy and creaking bureaucratic systems and uncertainty about the future viability of the practice of legal aid practitioners…”.
“The problems are so deep-rooted, commonplace and various that piecemeal reforms alone would simply be papering over the cracks.”
The report conceded creating a new legal framework would take time to “transform access to justice”. First steps for a government would be reforming legal aid eligibility rules and widening the scope of legal aid.
Further, the Legal Aid Agency should be replaced by a body at “arm’s length from government”, and resources should be devoted to improving public legal education.
It argued the abolition of the Legal Services Commission in 2013 and creating the agency “resulted in a blurring of boundaries between Whitehall and the administration of the legal aid scheme.”
One recommendation was a government review of the state of the legal aid profession “and its continued viability”, including an analysis of the impact of cutting the bursary scheme for aspiring legal aid lawyers.
Introducing the report, Lord Bach said: “There is an urgent need to bring some areas of civil law back into the scope of legal aid, with a focus on early legal help in order to help prevent problems developing further down the track. There are also huge administrative problems with the operation of legal aid, and levels of public legal capability are dangerously low.”
A breakdown of The Fabian Society’s cost estimates to implement the Bach Commission proposals were: £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.
Bach Commission members included the former Court of Appeal judge Sir Henry Brooke, Julie Bishop, director of the UK Law Centres Network, and a number of high-profile legal aid lawyers.
Responding to the report, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, pledged Labour would “take forward [the report’s] recommendations in government”. Meanwhile, there was much in the report “that the government could implement ahead of the next election if it is serious about restoring access to justice”.
Law Society vice-president Christina Blacklaws said the report’s central recommendations for legislation and a new body to enforce it were “interesting ideas that merit further consideration”.
She added: “We welcome action to ensure the continued viability of the legal aid profession, particularly in light of recent data which calls attention to the fact that increasingly it is no longer economically viable for solicitors to do this work.”