At the Party conferences we saw the publication of the Bach Commission’s ‘The Right to Justice’ report; Ministers announced that they will proceed with the post implementation review of LASPO, and some positive suggestion (at a LawWorks/APPG meeting) from the Solicitor General that the Government is now more accepting of the case for “early legal advice” - a call echoed again by the Law Society in November. LawWorks were active in meetings at the Lib Dem, Labour and Conservative Party conferences, making the case that whilst pro bono contributes to enabling access to justice, and developing in response to discrete areas of need, it cannot replace the state’s duty to support a properly functioning and comprehensive legal aid system.
A new Justice Select Committee has also started work, with its initial session on the work of the Ministry of Justice, and we were pleased to see Alex Chalk MP, the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Pro Bono, challenging the Lord Chancellor, David Liddington MP, on whether his Department was receiving the necessary Treasury support to deliver on his Department’s remit on the rule of law and access to justice. The Ministry of Justice have now prepared and published a “post-legislative memoranda” on the LASPO legislation and have sent this to the Justice Select Committee. By way of a pre-emptive gathering of evidence, LawWorks - working with a wide-ranging consortium of stakeholders (including Mind, the Law Centres Network, the Personal Support Unit and the Bar Council) have already submitted an extensive portfolio of evidence in our own memorandum to the Justice Select Committee, and we will continue to work to influence the outcomes of the review.
However, legal aid funding is far from being the only issue on the access to justice agenda. The recent judgement by the Supreme Court: R (on the application of UNISON) (Appellant) v Lord Chancellor (Respondent) on employment tribunal fees has resulted in the Ministry of Justice having to both review and reimburse employment tribunal fees. This issue has run alongside the policy debate on employment rights and redress, a problem that the Taylor Review of employment practices in the so called ‘gig economy’ has been addressing, and has also been raised in recent judgements on the status of workers in Uber and similar sectors. We were pleased to see our submission quoted approvingly in the Taylor Review’s final report, and the Work and Pensions and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committees have published a joint report and draft Bill to close the loopholes that allow companies to use unclear "self-employment" status as a route to cheap labour and tax avoidance.
Digital justice has also been high on the agenda, and debated and blogged about including by HMCTS itself, but has been moving more slowly in practice – new digital channels are still being tested for divorce, money claims and probate. In the criminal justice system jurisdiction the digital programme is more advanced, for example with channels for online pleading already operational. However, it is less clear what and how HMCTS might deliver by way of assisted digital services – and meet the digital services standard. The law reform charity JUSTICE have set up a working group on this issue.
Within the wider legal services sector, regulators have also been busy promoting their agendas; the Solicitors Regulatory Authority, for example, have been consulting on a new training and qualifying system (the controversial “SQE”), a revised handbook codifying solicitors’ practice rules, and a new corporate strategy. LawWorks have been responding on these – making the case in each that regulators have a key role in encouraging pro bono work in the profession to help fulfil their regulatory objectives under the Legal Services Act.
The Access to Justice Policy Year was rounded off in December with the Civil Justice Council’s National Forum on “access to justice for those without means,” which brings together a wide range of stakeholders with an interest in the civil justice system. Chaired by Justice Robin Knowles with his usual precision, this year’s forum emphasised the opportunities of collaboration and technology, but looking forward to 2025 with strategy to improve the system and strongly endorsed by key speakers from the senior Judiciary, Lexis Nexis, HMCTS and Justice Select Committee Chairman Bob Neil MP.