In the third of our series of reports from the party conferences, Luke Robins-Grace tells of the changing legal aid mood music at the Conservative gig in Manchester
The legal aid mood music playing at this week’s Conservative Party Conference was bright, if gentle. No more money is being offered and it’s not quite clear who composed the score or why, but it came from high up and it sounded pretty good; better than it has in a long while, at the very least.
At a Bar Council sponsored reception, lord chancellor David Lidington said that the long-awaited LASPO review would be an opportunity to see if there are ‘good arguments for specific changes to be made’. At a separate fringe event, solicitor general Robert Buckland QC said, ‘there is a strong case for a significant increase in funding for early advice legal aid. . . There is unfairness that needs to be addressed.’
The language may be cautious, but the conversation about legal aid has been stuck in a cul-de-sac since the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) and this looks like an invitation for some constructive thinking.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that, Brexit aside, access to justice and legal aid were popular topics at the legal fringe events. Justice committee chair Bob Neill had star billing at the SMF and Access to Justice fringe and his fellow committee member Alex Chalk MP chaired a LawWorks event on pro bono. Meanwhile, at a panel event sponsored by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, PPS to the lord chancellor Lucy Frazer QC MP spoke of the importance of access to justice and legal aid. All that was in addition to a panel event hosted by Justice, the Society of Conservative Lawyers, the Bar Council and the Law Society featuring Justice Minister Dominic Raab MP, and our reception, which was addressed by the lord chancellor.
As the chair of the bar Andrew Langdon QC observed last week, on legal aid it feels like change is afoot.
Setting those positive noises aside, there are still question marks over how access to justice fits in to current thinking on court fees and court reform. Speaking at our panel event, justice minister, Dominic Raab, acknowledged that the government had got it wrong on employment tribunal fees, but went on to back the idea that the user – as well as the tax payer – should still pay. It does not look like a review is on the cards either. Data on court fees, he said, is often incomplete or not analogous, making it difficult to gather evidence on the impact of court fees and therefore hard to assess the extent to which they diminish access to justice.
And what impact will the court reform programme have on access and the quality of justice? On the one hand, as the minister said at our event, the MOJ is not ‘penny-pinching’ with its £1.1 billion investment in technology and reform.
Most legal commentators and stakeholders agree that an overhaul is long-overdue. Digitisation and the online court have obvious benefits if, at a fraction of the current cost, they can be used to resolve straightforward disputes and hearings that currently require physical buildings and legal teams.
On the other hand, the investment needs to deliver savings of £250 million a year and the government must avoid the temptation to funnel the entire range and volume of complex human problems through a triage of algorithms and decision-trees. And however easy it is to access the court (online or otherwise), access to legal advice is an entirely different matter. Most citizens always will still need help to understand the law and to present their case.
That is why the shift in tone on legal aid is so significant – whatever else happens, it is fundamental to access to justice. And why the sudden change? It might be that since LASPO enough time has now passed and enough of the actors have changed to make the issue easier to revisit.
At an SRA and Demos event, the think tank chief executive Claudia Wood said she thought there is more sympathy for those who might need legal aid now that the backlash against welfare recipients has reversed. Those reading the runes on the Labour benches meanwhile might see the hand of Jeremy Corbyn as having pushed the agenda to the left. An attractive explanation offered by one journalist was simply that it feels like there is a bit of value these days in ‘being nice’.
‘Waiting for the LASPO review has been a bit like waiting for Godot,’ the bar chair told guests at our conference reception. Not much longer to wait now, we were told the following day by justice minister Dominic Rabb, and if the warm words of the solicitor general and lord chancellor are anything to go by, it might be worth waiting for.
Of course in the end it all comes down to money and it is not clear yet what can be achieved without more of it, but crucially, the will to address legal aid and access to justice is clearly there on both sides of the house.