Access To Justice: Vulnerable People

I beg to move, That this House has considered access to justice for vulnerable people.

Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab): I beg to move, That this House has considered access to justice for vulnerable people.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak on what is an increasingly critical issue: access to justice, particularly for those who for whatever reason would otherwise be left without legal redress. The Opposition recognise the fundamental importance of legal aid in ensuring that everyone has access to justice. It is a significant time for legal aid, and today marks the inaugural meeting of the Bach commission, led by my colleague Lord Willy Bach and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner). The commission has brought together experts from across the legal profession and will explore establishing access to justice as a fundamental public entitlement.

Since 2010 the Government have cut legal aid to the bone. The consensus that once existed around legal aid has been sidelined. Although we recognise the need to make savings, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the Justice Committee have all criticised the Government’s failure to understand the knock-on costs and wider consequences of their reforms. The Labour party recognises the importance of legal aid in making sure the state does not infringe upon the liberty of its citizens, and we understand its crucial role as a tool for legal redress in family disputes. Those who traditionally benefit from legal aid—the poor and most vulnerable—have been marginalised by the policies of this Government. They have seen the erosion of their rights at work, in schools, and in their housing and welfare needs. In 2010, as Labour left office, almost 500,000 cases received advice or assistance for social welfare issues. The year after the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 came into force, it was less than 53,000.

Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab): I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend has constituents in his surgeries every single week desperate for legal help, who previously would have benefited from the legal aid regime, but who now cannot find legal help or representation anywhere and cannot afford to pay for it.

Stephen Kinnock:  My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. This is about the kind of society we want to live in. There is no doubt that a key indicator of that is the way in which we deal with access to justice. My constituents, like hers, are deeply concerned about the distortion of our justice system, which we are discussing here today.

The figures that I have cited show a massive drop in access to justice, and that has had a huge impact on people across England and Wales: parents unable to see their children; employees unfairly dismissed or discriminated against; tenants mistreated by abusive landlords; and women unable to leave abusive partners. Those are exactly the kind of people the Government claim to stand up for, but the reality is different. Consider family proceedings, for instance. In the first quarter of 2015, 76% of private family law cases had at least one party who was not represented. That means our constituents no longer receive the support and advice that is required for them to have effective redress in the courts.

The problem is most acute in the civil and family courts, which are dealing with an unprecedented rise in the number of litigants in person. Previously, litigants in person were most often there by choice, choosing to self-represent, but it is now the case that litigants in person are there because they cannot get legal aid. The personal support unit, which provides help to people facing civil court hearings, has seen a rise of 900% in clients helped. The deck is firmly stacked against the most vulnerable. What was once a relatively level playing field has been seriously distorted, with litigants in person now effectively battling uphill, often challenging decisions passed down by the Government.

The checks and balances that were previously in place for citizens to hold the Government to account have been seriously limited. Across the legal spectrum, we have seen the removal of vast swathes of legal aid, the closing down of law centres, and the removal of good quality legal advice from those who need it most. If that was not enough, the safeguard of judicial review has also been severely curtailed. We have seen the warm words from the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who decried a two-nation justice system, but unfortunately we all know his rhetoric is not being backed up by action. The Justice Secretary has carried on from where his predecessor left off: sidelining legal aid; the sector cut to the bone; court closures denying access to local justice; and massive increases in fees, excluding many from the system.

One particular section of the population in desperate need are the victims of domestic violence. During the passage of the LASPO Bill, the Government made a point of saying that it was not their intention to make legal aid available to all victims of domestic violence. The Government have been too narrow in the safeguards put in place for ensuring that victims of domestic violence can receive legal aid. The Justice Committee expressed concern in its report about the evidence requirements for victims of domestic violence, and a recent survey from Rights of Women revealed that 39% of respondents did not have the evidence required to qualify for legal aid. Another survey found that almost half of respondents did not take any action in relation to their family law problem because they were unable to apply for legal aid, and a further 25% opted to represent themselves in court. Those figures reflect the findings of the all-party group on domestic and sexual violence, which found that more than 60% of respondents did not commence action and that one in six had to pay more than £50 to get the required evidence to prove domestic violence. Victims of domestic violence should not be forced to choose between staying with their abuser and having to face them in court. Although the Opposition do not believe that that was the Government’s intention in the legal aid reforms, it none the less persists and must be addressed.

Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab): My hon. Friend is raising important points about domestic violence and the barriers to accessing legal aid that particularly women face, but women face a double barrier when it comes to sex discrimination in the workplace. The new employment tribunal fees mean we have seen a huge drop in the number of women seeking justice.

Stephen Kinnock: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She makes an absolutely critical point about women in the workplace. This plays into the broader theme of today’s discussion, which is about how we ensure we include all elements of society so that we can build an economy and society that is cohesive and dynamic. The issues are not only about rights and equalities in the narrow sense; they are about how those rights and equalities play into the creation of an inclusive and dynamic economy where all people are able to bring their talents to the table, and women are a critical element of that. Without redress to justice, they will not have the checks and balances in place that they need to defend their rights, as should every other member of society.

A clear theme is coming through in the interventions from my hon. Friends. The overall theme is around the question of whether the Government have properly considered the impact of their legislation and policies on some of the most vulnerable groups in society, such as the homeless; those threatened with eviction and serious housing disrepair; those in need of community care services; parents and children involved in child abduction cases; and those with mental health and mental capacity issues. This test only further entrenches the gap between those who can and those who cannot access justice. The law is there to protect all citizens, and a robust justice system should make sure that justice should be afforded to all, not only those who can afford it.

Jo Stevens: Last week the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, issued his annual report in which he raised concerns about the lack of access to justice, and Lord Justice Briggs said:

“To any rational observer who values access to civil justice, this is a truly shocking state of affairs.”

If we have the most senior judiciary in our country worrying about lack of access to justice, does my hon. Friend not agree that the Government must take heed and start to change their policies in this arena?

Stephen Kinnock: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I agree entirely with every word of it, and with the sentiment. Members clearly have a deep and active interest in this issue, but we could never claim to be experts at the same level as the judiciary whom she just cited. We must defer to those views. If the most eminent experts in the world are telling us that the system is seriously flawed and the new legislation is deeply damaging, surely we must take heed of their interventions.

Nothing we see from the Government addresses what is increasingly being recognised as a two-nation justice system—and this from the party that claims to be a one-nation party. How we treat the most vulnerable is a key barometer of the kind of society we are and aspire to be, particularly when it relates to that most fundamental of rights: equality before the law. The increase in court fees, alongside reduced access to legal aid, restricts access to justice. Unless the Government change course, they will fail on the first duty of any Government: the just maintenance of law and order.

Stephen Kinnock: Given the changes that are being introduced and the impact they will have in real time, does the Minister not agree that waiting for three to five years before doing a review of LASPO is simply evidence of being asleep at the wheel? A review of LASPO needs to be brought forward in a far shorter timeframe.

Mr Vara: It is important to recognise that LASPO made a huge change to the whole structure of the legal aid system. It is important that we ensure the changes have sufficient time to bed in, in order to make a proper assessment of whether they have worked. As it happens, the three to five year period is more or less approaching us, and we will do the review in 2016 to 2018, but it is important that we allow such fundamental changes to take place.

Stephen Kinnock: It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bailey. I thank all hon. Members present today for some truly engaging and insightful contributions to this vital debate. We have heard a range of comments about the comparison between our system and others and the professed commitment to a one nation justice system, as well as a passionate exchange of views about the real role of a legal and justice system.

A conclusion from my point of view is that there seems to be very little traction in comparing other systems to ours; it is like comparing apples to pears. Another conclusion I draw is that change and reform are absolutely fine. Nobody thinks our system should be static and stuck in the mud, but if we are going to change, we do not change simply by slashing and burning. We change by having a proper plan B and a sustainable system to put in as a replacement, rather than simply salami-slicing across the current system. It seems we are creating a truly two nation justice system, and if that happens, it will be a tragedy.

We have seen some evidence of listening from the Government. The screeching U-turn that the Justice Secretary performed on the scrapping of criminal court charges is evidence of such listening, and Opposition Members certainly welcome that. Rather than diving down into the weeds, I will conclude by saying that a justice system needs to pass four key tests. First, it must uphold the belief that someone is innocent until proven guilty. Secondly, everyone should have access to justice, regardless of their means. Thirdly, it is essential that we have confidence that the true perpetrators of crime have been found guilty and are not walking the streets. Fourthly, the system must deliver value for money for the taxpayer.

I am afraid that on all four of those tests, the Government are failing. We hope they will listen carefully to the proposals we have made today about the changes that are required. I also hope that we can, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) said, try to put politics aside and work together to create a more equitable, efficient and fair justice system.