Here are two of the speeches at the launch of the Bach Report at a fringe meeting organised by LawWorks on the Monday of the recent Labour Party conference.
I do not have the text of the other platform speeches, which were made by Labour’s shadow Justice Secretary (Richard Burgon MP) and shadow Attorney-General (Shami Chakrabarti, who is now a life peer). Lord Bach spoke first (see above).
The importance of the speech by Gloria del Piero MP (a junior shadow Justice Minister) is that she was speaking about the importance of the report from a perspective of a non-lawyer.
Although the report was launched under Labour Party auspices, it was the report of an independent commission. As I said (and I am sure my fellow commissioners would have shared my approach):
Although the Labour Party sponsored this report, we were an independent commission of experts, and I would have behaved in the same way, within reason, whoever had asked me to do this job. Somebody had to do it.
Launch of the Bach Commission Report at the Holiday Inn, Brighton, on 25th September 2017
Addresses by Henry Brooke and Gloria del Piero MP
1. Henry Brooke
When I retired from the Bench long, long ago, if anyone had told me I would be speaking at a fringe meeting at a Labour Party conference in 11 years’ time, I would have replied:
Pull the other one.
I have been asked to say a few words about our report.
We published it last Friday, so that you could pick up the gist of what we are saying before this launch event today.
If enough people study it carefully – and also take the trouble to read a few of the papers we have published with it – I think it could mark a turning-point of the same importance as the original Legal Aid and Advice Act in 1949.
When we first met as a commission, Willy Bach told us that he thought that both major parties had made mistakes when they were in Government. This is why he wanted us to produce a thorough, evidence-based report describing in detail how things stood today and what we thought ought to be done to put the show back on the road again, ideally with cross-party support.
Although the Labour Party sponsored this report, we were an independent commission of experts, and I would have behaved in the same way, within reason, whoever had asked me to do this job. Somebody had to do it. My great hope is that somehow or other we can eventually return to an all-party consensus about legal aid. Justice is too precious to be a party-political football – although I realise that this may be too much to hope for, at any rate in the short term.
We started with seven sessions of oral evidence – from the Law Society, from the Bar Council, from Lord Low and Steve Hynes on behalf of the Low Commission, from two technology experts Richard Susskind and Roger Smith, from the Society of Labour Lawyers, and from the two leading groups of solicitors practising criminal law. I have set out the gist of all this evidence in Appendix One to the Report.
Then we asked for Written Evidence, and we were pleased to receive a torrent of high quality evidence. I spent a lot of time last year making this more accessible to Commissioners and the Fabian Society, and this is what the next two Appendices are all about. And before the end of last year we published our Interim Report.
We decided to have four more all-day hearings this year. One to tease out some of the issues that form Part One of the Final Report, two on different specialist aspects of the legal aid scene, and the last one on public legal education and advice services. Appendix Four gives the gist of this evidence.
And we have spent the last three months accelerating towards the finish, with a lot more meetings thrown in. I must add that the Fabians have done a marvellous job putting all our incoherent thoughts together in intelligible English.
As you will know, the Report falls into two parts. In the first we say that in the light of what has happened in the last 20 years, justice needs better protection, and we propose a new Right to Justice Act. This will create an enforceable entitlement to justice, within reason, at an affordable cost, and we propose a new Justice Commission, ideally headed by a senior judicial figure, to make sure that the new Act isn’t simply a dead letter. This is very high level thinking, and there will be a lot of work needed to tease out the detail.
And then in Part Two we put forward a 25-point plan in which we identify what we think should be the priority areas for reform. They include, for example an overhaul of the rules for financial eligibility, turning the Legal Aid Agency back into an independent Commission, the restoration of a lot of the provision for early legal help which was axed four years ago, proper support for public legal education and advice services, and a very few areas where we think the right to publicly funded legal representation in court should be restored.
Appendix Five contains my analysis of some of the detailed evidence on key issues. I think this is also a “must-read” for anyone debating legal aid in future. I am now publishing daily excerpts of it on my blogsite to give people a feel of what is there.
Appendix Six contains a brief history of the first 70 years of Legal Aid which I wrote last year, and Appendix Seven is a Fabians’ paper on the cost implications of our proposals and the savings they can be expected to achieve.
This paper tells us that in today’s prices LASPO was originally budgeted to make annual savings between £400 and £450 million, and that in fact they have made savings of about £950 million – a £0.5 billion annual underspend. They think our ideas are likely to cost about £400 million, and we know that for every pound we spend on early legal help we are likely to achieve savings of at least two pounds, and probably a lot more, further down the line because we will not be waiting, as we are now, for expensive disasters to happen before any public legal funding is available to try and avert them.
One of the most poignant moments of our inquiry was when a Grenfell Tower tenant said that when they went to the local law centre for help with their landlords, the law centre told them they couldn’t help until someone was actually threatened with eviction, or until any disrepair was so bad it was seriously endangering someone’s health.
We have done our job. We will all be happy to answer questions about it. And I hope that the quality of our work may achieve public trust, and that it will be a useful foundation for all the interesting discussions about the best way forward that are bound to come on pretty soon, once the conference season is over.
2. Gloria del Piero MP
I was recently told of the case of a two-year-old girl who suffered major brain damage because an out-of-hours GP failed to diagnose her meningitis. Her family was granted legal aid to take the doctor to court for medical negligence and eventually managed to settle the case before trial – the money they received will help pay for their daughter’s ongoing care.
If this had happened today, her lawyers Thompsons Solicitors say it’s unlikely her family would have taken the case at all because the Tories’ cuts mean she wouldn’t be eligible for legal aid and the family couldn’t afford to pay the legal fees.
It’s not just sick children either: victims of domestic violence, tenants dealing with bad landlords, families about to be made homeless, have all be prevented from accessing legal aid because of this government’s cuts. Applications for civil legal aid are down 84 per cent in the last 5 years. That’s hundreds of thousands of people being locked out of justice because of the Tories’ cuts to legal aid introduced in the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment Act (LASPO) 5 years ago.
Labour’s Lord Bach and a team of experts assembled by the Fabian Society, have spent 2 years listening to over 100 individuals and organisations give evidence on the state of the justice system 5 years on from the Tories’ LASPO Act. The Bach Commission’s conclusion, published by the Fabian Society, is that our justice system is in crisis – people across the country are unable to fight injustice and challenge offences because whole areas of law have been taken out of legal aid. Cuts have meant in the last 5 years the number of law firms offering legal aid has fallen 20 per cent meaning that even if you are still eligible for support, you still may not be able to get legal advice or fight your case
If you’ve been the victim of injustice, it shouldn’t make a difference where you’re from or what you earn – you should be able to access justice like anyone else. But under the Tories the reality is that justice is no longer a right it’s a privilege of those who can afford it. If you’re poor and have had your benefits wrongly taken away, or are living in an unsafe or poorly maintained building, unless you can find money to pay legal fees you’ve got no way of challenging it, the government’s attitude is – good luck.
In response, the Bach Commission has recommended a new legally enforceable right to justice, to ensure that cost is never a barrier to justice. It also recommends re-instating legal aid for areas of law that were removed by the LASPO Act, such as early legal help for all social welfare law to try and prevent small problems turning into much bigger ones. They recommend all civil cases relating to children should be automatically eligible for legal aid as well as the most serious family law cases, family reunion for refugees and vulnerable relatives and legal aid for inquests.
This is a serious and comprehensive review into the state of our legal aid system that’s long overdue, and yet it’s taken Labour to commission it. In February under pressure government ministers promised a review into legal aid, but seven months later when I asked them what progress they’ve made, they refused to answer, they haven’t even started.
Labour will be coming forward with detailed plans on how we will take forward Lord Bach’s recommendations, which will provide vital evidence for the Labour party’s policymaking process. Whatever your background, race or gender, whether you’re from a city or small town, Labour will always stand up for your fair access to justice.