We held the second meeting of the new Access to Justice Commission on 2nd February 2016.
We now have our own website, which is hosted by the Fabian Society who are providing us with splendid administrative back-up. It is at:
At present it holds only a description of the Commission’s task, and the short CVs of its 14 members, which I posted last week. I hope that very soon it will be possible to publish on this website transcripts of the evidence we have been receiving, and also a request for written evidence from anyone who is willing to assist us.
The Commission’s focus
The website states that we will hear from a range of legal experts and provide evidence-based proposals for how to restore access to legal information, advice and representation. Its starting point will be that access to justice is an essential public service, equal to healthcare or education.
It defines our focus in these terms:
“The Commission will seek to determine how the State can guarantee, in the context of an ever greater strain on public finances, that those who need access to advice or representation in order to enforce their rights have access to it. This will be considered alongside the question of how the provision of advice and the justice system can become more efficient and be made to work for the 21st century.
The case for access to justice as a public entitlement
The legal aid budget has been significantly cut in recent years and court and tribunal fees have risen. The impact on access to justice has been significant. While savings to the legal aid budget have been made, the wider impacts and consequences are not being measured and the National Audit Office, Public Accounts Committee and Justice Select Committee have all criticised the government for its lack of understanding of the knock-on costs and value for money of its reforms.
The Commission will firstly review the impacts of the reforms so far, looking at how efficient they have been, the scale of unmet needs and their impact on access to justice as well as wider impacts, such as on health outcomes or poverty. The Commission will outline the difference that would be made by a strategy to re-define access to justice as a key public entitlement.
Minimum guarantees as part of a new public entitlement
There is widespread acceptance that there must be decent standards of health care or education provided by the State. The same should be true of access to justice. The Commission will look at what these guarantees should be – for example, considering whether the focus should be on particular areas (social welfare law, access to a child, domestic abuse cases etc), on those most in need, or providing a basic level of service across all areas – and establish priorities for publicly funded legal support and interventions, as well as establish a framework for spending decisions. The Commission will consider what alternative savings or sources of funding could be found to enable us to start to rebuild a decent provision.
Transforming our justice system
Our society has evolved and so has the way in which we “consume” services. So while savings will need to be found, the work of the Commission will focus on how we re-design our justice system for the 21st century, focusing on re-thinking legal aid and drawing on international and historic comparisons.
It will identify shortcomings in the present legal aid scheme for both civil and criminal matters and seek to identify and develop measures which prevent the escalation of legal problems and their consequential social and economic costs to individuals and society. It will look at what impact efficiency measures and better use of technology can have and where to focus such reforms. It will consider how to better integrate advice with other aspects of our lives and the role of different sectors, from private practice to third sector agencies. It will consider how best to empower innovative thinking locally and support the sharing of best practice, including a focus on prevention. It will seek to design the blueprint for a new scheme that better meets the needs of those on low incomes, and most especially the needs of vulnerable groups, within a more efficient and effective administrative framework.”
The evidence we have received
We have gone off to a wonderful start in relation to the quality of the evidence we have been receiving. At our first meeting we heard from Richard Miller of the Law Society. This week we heard from Lord Low and Steve Hynes., whose brief CVs were in these terms:
Lord Low is a crossbench peer with a background in law and disability theory. A former lecturer in law at the University of Leeds, he is now Vice-President of the Royal National Institute for Blind People. His legal experience led to his chairing of the Low Commission, which aims to develop a strategy for access to justice and support on Social Welfare Law. Consequently, his expertise is in Social Welfare Law.
Steve Hynes also serves on the Low Commission, in addition to being the director of the Legal Action Group (LAG). LAG was founded in 1972 and is an independent charity promoting equal access to justice for all members of society who are disadvantaged socially, economically or otherwise. Steve is the author of books including Austerity Justice and the Justice Gap. He is an expert on all things relating to legal aid.
The work of the Low Commission
In another blog I hope I may be able to describe the gist of what we were told about the work of the Low Commission and how Lord Low hopes it may be built on in future. It has a most impressive membership:
Lord Colin Low (crossbencher) (chair)
Amanda Finlay (former legal services director at the Ministry of Justice) (vice chair)
Bob Chapman (member of the Committee for Administrative Justice and Tribunals in Wales)
Professor Mark Gamsu (professor and consultant in public health)
Vandna Gohil (HealthWatch programme manager for Voluntary Action Leicestershire)
David Hagg (chief executive Stroud District Council)
Steve Hynes (director of Legal Action Group)
Pam Kenworthy (legal director of Howells LLP Telephone Services)
Vicky Ling (former member of Civil Justice Council and co-editor of the LAG legal aid handbook 2013/14)
Susan Steed (New Economics Foundation and Centre for Market and Public Organisation, University of Bristol)
And it was good to read about the heavyweight support it received:
The following trusts and foundations have provided financial and other support:
- Baring Foundation
- Barrow Cadbury Trust
- Esmée Fairbairn Foundation
- LankellyChase Foundation
- Trust for London
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and Clifford Chance LLP have also provided support.
I mention these things for two reasons. First, because it is further evidence of the quality and experience of some of the people who are determined to do all they can to increase the availability of “access to justice” in its broadest sense to so many people who have been so cruelly disadvantaged by central government’s spending cuts over the last 5 years. And secondly, because it is impressive evidence that some private sector funders, at any rate, are doing what they can to help – and this number needs to grow and grow as the economy recovers and imaginative ways of meeting the unfulfilled need are increasingly being identified.
Some final thoughts
What I am finding so exciting about the Commission’s work is not only the chance of listening to people who are superbly well qualified to help us, but also the opportunity of listening to the exchanges that have been taking place between my fellow Commissioners and the witnesses in the second half of the evidence sessions. Two days ago well-informed questions and comments came thick and fast which revealed just how much knowledge and experience is already possessed by one or more Commissioners on almost every issue we are now exploring. My main preoccupation at the moment is to catch up with it all – and this involves a very great deal of background reading between Commission meetings, for which fortunately I have the time available (as never before in a rather crowded life).
What will come of it all remains to be seen – it is a golden opportunity to make a really significant contribution provided that we organize our work well. At the very least I will be very much better informed by the time we say our mutual good-byes.
 The Commission has published two substantive reports: The Low Commission, Tackling the Advice Deficit, 2014 – available online and The Low Commission, Getting it Right in Social Welfare Law, 2015 – available online