Labour commits to restoring access to justice
Manifesto hints at bringing back legal aid and redesigning judicial review
Labour will restore access to justice by looking at reinstating legal aid in certain areas, removing Tory restrictions on judicial review, and setting up a tribunal to hear environmental claims, the party has promised in its manifesto published this morning.
‘Justice is eroded by the poor decisions of privatised assessments, by the withdrawal of legal aid, by the removal of appeal rights, by the delays arising from overcrowded courts, and by the costs of fees,’ says the document.
On legal aid, the manifesto says, withdrawal across a whole range of areas ‘has had disturbing consequences for the delivery of justice’. One key proposal is to review the legal aid means tests, including the capital test for claimants on income-related benefits.
There are no specific promises, however, about loosening the test, and no indications as to how any widening of legal aid would be funded.
In a nod towards the work of the Bach commission, Labour merely says it will ‘consider the reinstatement of other legal aid entitlements after receiving the final recommendations of the Access to Justice Commission led by Lord Bach’.
In its interim report last November, the commission recommended setting minimum standards for access to justice, along with the introduction of legal education in the school curriculum and a ‘polluter pays’ scheme to fund court fees.
Separate proposals would tackle a number of public law concerns, including the reintroduction of funding for judicial review cases.
In a direct attack on restrictions brought in by the previous Conservative government, the manifesto says judicial review is ‘an important way of holding government to account’ and that ‘there are sufficient safeguards to discourage unmeritorious cases’.
Although not specifically mentioned in this context, any change along those lines would likely help applicants in Human Rights Act-based cases. In a separate commitment, however, the manifesto commits to retaining the HRA, a pledge featuring prominently as the second paragraph in the ‘Justice’ section.
In a related proposal, the document says Labour will consult on establishing an environmental tribunal with simplified and affordable procedures ‘to hear challenges to unlawful government decisions’. The setting up of an environmental tribunal will appeal to eco-minded voters but there will be questions as to whether this would simply duplicate the existing judicial review process.
A separate set of proposals brings together several family law issues. One is to bring back early advice entitlements in the family courts, another to ban ‘the cross-examination of victims of domestic violence by their abuser in certain circumstances’.
A third family law proposal would see the introduction of no-fault divorce. Family lawyers have been pressing for a change in the law and the proposal is likely to gain cross-party support. It is unclear, however, why a stand-alone measure such as this would feature in a manifesto concerned with top-level issues.
Finally, the manifesto includes a few proposals on the court system. Labour will not go back on the principle of court fees but will introduce a proportionality element based on actual costs.
It will also continue with the current move towards digital courts, provided that ‘it enhances access to justice, timely dispute resolution, and efficient administration’.
The judicial appointments process will also be reviewed ‘to ensure a judiciary that is more representative of our society’.
Other civil law reform proposals by sector
Brexit: Replace the Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protection Bill retaining workers’ rights, equality laws, consumer rights, and environmental protection rights ‘that are of benefit’.
Company law: Directors to have a duty not only to shareholders but also to employees, customers, the environment, and the wider public; introduce legal definition for cooperative ownership.
Consumer: New laws preventing banks from closing down branches if there is a clear local need.
Housing: New legal minimum standards for ‘fit for human habitation’.
Employment: A range of new laws including a ban on zero-hour contracts and unpaid internships, right to a trade union representative, abolition of employment tribunal fees, and double paternity leave.
Welfare: Scrap the bedroom tax, increase employment and support allowance, increase carer’s allowance.
Transport: New legal duties to improve accessibility for disabled users.
Environment: New Clean Air Act and several measures to protect habitat and wildlife.
Defence: No curtailment of right of redress against Ministry of Defence.
Jean-Yves Gilg is editor-in-chief at Solicitors Journal