A commission led by former Labour justice minister Lord Bach has today (Friday) published its final report, calling for a universal Right to Justice to be enshrined in law. It also suggested a raft of measures for broadening the current provision of legal aid as a matter of urgency.
Law Centres have contributed extensive evidence, orally and in writing, to the commission, sharing their experience of the practical and systemic failings currently plaguing legal aid. The Law Centres Network's director, Julie Bishop, also agreed to serve on the commission, taking part in the analysis of evidence and consideration of recommendations.
The report's main proposal of a Right to Justice Act is intended to:
- Codify existing rights to justice and establish a new right for individuals to receive reasonable legal assistance without costs they cannot afford
- Establish a set of principles that guide interpretation of this new right
- Establish a new body called the Justice Commission to monitor and enforce this new right
Even before the adoption of this Act, the commission proposes to:
- Widen the scope of legal aid, focusing on early legal help
- Simplify and expand eligibility for legal aid, reducing administrative burden on providers and the public
- Replace the Legal Aid Agency, currently part of the Ministry of Justice, by an independent, arms-length body
- Adopt a national strategy for public legal education and information
- Review the viability of the current legal aid system for the lawyers, firms and charities providing it
The Bach Commission report comes as the government is expected to launch its own review of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012. This review, announced eight months ago, was due to begin in May but was postponed due to the snap general elections.
Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy and profile at the Law Centres Network, said:
"The Bach Commission has taken on a momentous task, and its report makes compelling points of both principle and practicality. We agree with Lord Bach that legal aid is in crisis and that carrying on as things stand is simply not sustainable. For this reason we continue to engage with forums that seek to address this crisis, and bring to bear the valuable experience of Law Centres in shaping better provisions."