Conference believes that:
- A high quality justice system and access to justice for all, regardless of wealth, are essential to a free society.
- Lack of access to justice contributes to poverty and exclusion for the vulnerable.
- Access to justice must be local, comprehensive, properly administered, affordable and understandable.
- Legal aid is vital to ensuring access to justice for all and has been since its introduction in 1949.
- Judicial Review is essential to enable citizens to hold public bodies to account.
- The independence of the Judiciary and the legal professions is essential to the integrity of our system of justice.
Conference regrets that:
- Acute financial pressures during the Coalition years resulted in dramatic and disproportionate reductions to the legal aid budget, with severe and lasting consequences.
- Increased court and tribunal fees have deterred individuals and small businesses from using courts and employment tribunals and restricted access to justice.
- The Government continues to threaten further to restrict judicial review.
- That legal aid cuts have damaged access to justice and increased the number of unrepresented litigants, at an estimated financial cost of £3.4 million a year and an unquantified cost in quality of justice.
- That cuts in legal aid have led to justice deserts.
- That exceptional case funding has had extremely low uptake, so that many entitled to legal aid have gone without representation.
- That the arrangements for legal aid for victims of domestic violence have proved cumbersome and difficult to navigate.
- The government's proposals to close 91 courts and tribunals in England and Wales further threaten access to local justice.
- The announcement of further increases to court fees
- The reports of the Low Commission and its call for a national strategy for advice and legal support.
- The exceptional work of legal aid solicitors and barristers, and the impact of legal aid cuts on their livelihoods and on the future availability of legal aid lawyers.
Conference therefore calls for:
- An urgent review into the effect of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act to examine its costs and benefits and its impact on access to justice.
- Clarification of the exceptional case funding rules and procedures to ensure that qualifying litigants access exceptional funding.
- Simpler procedures for legal aid in domestic violence cases.
- The restitution of legal aid for first-tier appeals in social welfare cases.
- Legal aid to be available for advice before proceedings in housing cases potentially involving the loss of a home.
- Legal aid to be available to children and vulnerable young people.
- Legal aid to be available for permission applications in judicial review cases without the risk of non-payment for unsuccessful applications.
- A full review of the impact of court fees on access to justice and all changes necessary to ensure that such fees do not deter meritorious litigants from bringing or defending proceedings.
- Alternative sources of funding for criminal cases to be explored, including the use of restrained assets for reasonable defence costs and company directors' insurance for the defence of fraud prosecutions.
- Defendants acquitted in criminal cases generally to have their reasonable costs paid out of central funds.
- A comprehensive independent review of the financial and administrative arrangements for legal aid work, in consultation with the professions and the Government.
- Pending the results of the review, an end to reductions in real terms in fees for both criminal and civil legal aid work.
- The establishment of a national network of providers of advice and legal support along the lines suggested by the Low Commission, funded from a combination of government, voluntary sector and private sources; such advice should include initial family advice.
- A comprehensive system of free public legal education, incorporating basic legal education in schools, delivered as part of citizenship education, and the establishment of a national government funded and maintained on-line legal information and resources site, backed up by a telephone service available for clarification and signposting.
- The streamlining and simplification of all court and tribunal procedures, using accessible digital technology as appropriate, to enable justice to be delivered more effectively.
- The Courts Service to provide procedural advice to litigants in person through a designated member of staff at each court centre and on-line.
- A ban on 'McKenzie Friends' receiving payment for their services.
- All proposed court closures are locally assessed, having regard not only to potential savings but also to their possible impact on local access to justice.
- Continuing encouragement of mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution, particularly for family matters.
- Revival of the ‘Green Form’ Legal Aid system whereby litigants in person can be given initial constructive legal advice on the strengths (and weaknesses) of their cases.
Applicability: England and Wales.