I first met (Lord) Willy Bach seven years ago when he was a junior minister at the Ministry of Justice and I was chairing the working party which bridged the gap between the publication of the Report of the Public Legal Education Task Force (of which I was a member) and the creation of the excellent new charity called Law for Life, of which I am one of the founding patrons. It calls itself
“a charity dedicated to ensuring that people have the knowledge, confidence and skills needed to deal with law-related issues.”
Lord Bach immediately realised the importance of providing Government support for the work we were doing. This involved exploring how we might raise people’s capacity to understand how they might seek legal help in resolving difficulties in their lives when they were only vaguely, if not at all, aware that a civil justice system existed and that it was there to help them.
I have kept in touch with him ever since, and I had no hesitation in accepting his invitation to become a member of his new Access to Justice Commission which met yesterday for the first time.
Although the Commission’s work is sponsored by the Labour Party, and although the Fabian Society will be providing our work with much needed administrative underpinning, it is a group of genuine experts who have agreed to join it, regardless of party affiliation, because they realise how important it is to carry out an objective assessment of the justice scene today and to seek realistic ways of restoring the best features of what was lost in the course of the brutal cuts from which the sector has been suffering in recent years.
We met in a large room in Portcullis House, Westminster, where they had arranged tables in the form of a hollow square in the middle of the room, with five people on each of the four sides. After a useful discussion of the task we had been set and the way in which we might structure our work, we heard the first of our oral witnesses, Richard Miller. He is Head of Legal Aid at the Law Society and a walking encyclopaedia of knowledge about the strains being felt by so many people struggling against the odds to continue to provide a quality service to those who cannot afford expensive legal advice or representation.
As I looked round the room, I was struck by the volume of experience that was represented there. Although three of us could not attend this first meeting (and as the rest of them are all busy people it is unlikely that we will often have a full house at our regular fortnightly meetings) the quality of those who could come readily persuaded me that we should be able to provide a report of very great value if only we can persuade enough well-informed people to help us with our work as it proceeds.
I am sure that a request for written evidence will be published soon, and we will also be continuing to arrange oral evidence sessions of the type that occurred at our first meeting yesterday.
Two of the Commission’s terms of reference explain vividly what we are being asked to do. It will
aim to provide progressive, cost-efficient and evidence-based policy proposals for how to restore access to legal information, advice and representation as a key public service; and
focus on three areas: making the case for access to justice as a fundamental public entitlement, delivering fundamental guarantees of access to justice provision, and reforming and redesigning the legal system to save money while improving provision.
The Commission’s members(with brief CVs), other than its chair, Lord Bach, are:
Raju Bhatt is one of the founders of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors. He served as a member of the Hillsborough Independent Panel which reported to the Home Secretary in 2012.
Julie Bishop is Director of the Law Centres Network, a post that she had held for 8 years. Julie was Director of the National Association of Community Legal Centres in Australia for over 5 years.
Sir Henry Brooke CMG is a retired Lord Justice of Appeal. He is an active patron of a number of legal NGOs, including Law for Life, the Harrow Law Centre and the Public Law Project. He has had over 50 years‘ experience of legal aid issues.
Joanne Cecil is a criminal defence practitioner with a wealth of experience in criminal advocacy.
David Gilmore is founder and managing Director of DG Legal and has worked with a wide variety of organisations in the private, public and third sector.
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson DBE DL is one of Britain’s greatest Paralympic athletes who has been a crossbench peer in the House of Lords since 2010 and is an acknowledged expert on disability issues.
Nick Henning is a Partner at Dutton Gregory LLP who specialises in commercial litigation and employment law. He is a past President of the Chartered institute of Legal Executives and Chair of CILEX Pro Bono Trust. He is also chair of South West Legal Support Trust, sits on the Board of the Bar Pro Bono Unit and is a member of the Civil Justice Council Working Party on Access to Justice for Litigants in Person.
Laura Janes is a consultant solicitor advocate with special expertise in youth justice.
Andrew Keogh is a barrister and head of content for CrimeLine.
Nicola Mackintosh QC is the Sole Principal at Mackintosh Law. She has an extensive proven track record of undertaking complex casework for the most vulnerable people in society, and creating precedents for the benefit of people living with disabilities.
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff CBE is Managing Director of Scott-Moncrieff and Associates. She was President of the Law Society of England and Wales in 2012-2013.
Carol Storer OBE has been the Director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) since 2008. She has worked in private practice, in the third sector and in the public sector.
Bill Waddington is Director of Williamsons Solicitors. He has over 30 years’ experience in dealing with all nature of cases within the criminal justice system.
I aim to publish reflections from time to time on different aspects of the issues we will be confronting.
It is likely to be a fascinating year.
 In a fortnight’s time I will be chairing a seminar which will be discussing the implications of their latest worrying research report, whose bottom line is that
“perhaps most pressingly, the findings confirm the need to recognise the lack of reach of traditional legal services into the lives of people who experience common and sometimes complex legal issues, their reticence to seek legal advice and the concomitant need to reshape justice policies to be more responsive and proactive in providing them [with the help they need] in a timely and targeted way.”
 I was the only Commissioner to have attained the luxury of retirement and a greater degree of control over my own timetable.
 A transcript of the proceedings will be available to us, so that absentees will be able to catch up quickly with what they missed.