In the Media

Justice for All at the Labour party conference

PUBLISHED September 28, 2011

Supporters of Justice for All (JfA) have been meeting MPs, lords and delegates at the Labour party conference this week, to build support for the campaign against the legal aid cuts. At a crowded fringe meeting yesterday, organised by the Law Society and JfA, shadow ministers Andy Slaughter and Lord Bach condemned the government's plans for legal aid and promised to continue the support for amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. LAG's director Steve Hynes spoke on behalf of JfA at the meeting. He stressed the need to 'pick our battles', singling out clinical negligence, the definition of domestic violence, social welfare law and the independence of the decision-making process as areas which should be fought hard at the report stage of the bill in the House of Commons and House of Lords. 'The network of firms and not for profit organisations across the country will be devastated if the bill is passed without amendment, leaving the public with nowhere to go to get advice locally.' Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, vice president of the Law Society, began by emphasising the principle of the rule of law, which she said these reforms put at risk, undermining the central tenet that no-one is above or outside the law, and that rights must be enforceable to be valid. She defended the role of lawyers in the system, saying litigation should always be a last resort but that consulting a lawyer can be a very good first step. And she picked up particularly on the effect these reforms would have on children and on women who are victims of domestic violence, on those bringing cases under conditional fee arrangements (who would have to pay their legal costs out of the winnings under the reforms), and the dangers of making areas of advice such as community care only accessible via the telephone. Lord Bach, the former legal aid minister who will lead Labour's opposition to the bill in the House of Lords, pledged: 'We will try to at least mitigate the worst effects of the bill' by supporting amendments in the Lords. Lord Bach condemned the proposals as 'practical and financial madness', which will cost more and leave people queuing at their MP's surgery with nowhere else to turn. He defended Labour's record on maintaining legal aid for social welfare law, and expressed his disappointment with the Liberal Democrats who he said 'have a proud record of supporting legal aid, sometimes holding us - correctly - to account as we changed the system in government' but who are now voting through the bill. Andy Slaughter MP, the shadow legal aid minister, said the proposals were 'the most sustained attack on access to justice since legal aid began', and suggested the government's motivation was ideological as well as financial. He promised Labour's continued opposition to the measures, particularly around the cuts to social welfare law, and in answer to a question he promised that Labour would not be cutting social welfare law were they in power. He also drew particular attention to the proposed definition of domestic violence, citing a Liverpool law firm which estimates that only five of their current 278 clients who are victims of domestic violence would be eligible for legal aid under the new definition. The feedback which JfA has had this week from members of the House of Lords has been positive over the chances of amending the bill. They believe that support from cross-benchers, who are politically independent, as well as Conservative and Liberal Democrat members of the House of Lords who are concerned about provisions in the bill, will be crucial in winning concessions from the government. JfA will be attending the Conservative party conference next to meet politicians and delegates to build support for the campaign. A fringe meeting will be held next Tuesday afternoon (4 October) at 12.30 pm at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel, 38-40 Peter Street, Manchester. Picture: LAG