(report by Jake Richards) For many Labour Party members, Labour Party Conference 2016 must have seemed remarkably similar to Labour Party Conference 2015. Although the weather was less sunny, it began with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Party. Last year, the consequence of Corbyn’s victory was widespread paralysis through shock at the backbencher’s dramatic emergence. This year, his predictable re-election was met with a more thoughtful response. In fringe events I went to and on the Conference floor, there were expressions of unity on issues such as grammar schools and the economy, and where there were disagreements they were (mostly) conducted with admirable comradeship.
For lawyers, and those interested in justice issues, the twist and turns of the internal politics and machinations have little impact. Perhaps more than any policy area, all tribes, groups and organisations within the Labour movement can coalesce around fighting for a fair and proper justice system. From the scandal of employment tribunal fees to the campaign to save the Human Rights Act, to the cruelty of legal aid cuts and reforming our failing criminal justice system, Labour is united.
In this spirit, the Society went to Conference with the aim of hearing from and promoting voices from all parts of the movement. On Sunday night, we held an event, kindly sponsored by the Law Society, with Richard Burgon MP, Shadow Justice Secretary, Lord Willy Bach, PCC in Leicestershire and Chair of the Bach Commission, and the Chair of the Bar Council and Vice-President of the Law Society (both of whom write in this issue of Justice for All).
On Monday, the Young Labour Lawyers held a drinks reception to discuss the critical issue of diversity in and access to the legal profession. Amongst many familiar and new faces, we were delighted to be joined by a number of law students from Liverpool University who chose to come to our event on their first ever day at University. They all showed a commitment and passion for justice, so early in the long journey to practice, which was reinvigorating for some of our more mature members!
On Tuesday, with JUSTICE and the Bar Council, there was a broad discussion about how to improve and ensure justice, with Charlie Falconer QC, the former Lord Chancellor, Keir Starmer QC and MP for Holborn and St Pancras, Shami Chakrabarti, the former head of Liberty, and Andrea Coomber Director of JUSTICE. The room was so packed, people were queuing outside the room to try and hear from the esteemed panel.
Although many long-standing gripes were raised at our meetings, I was struck by a number of issues that received more prominence than at last year’s conference. Inevitably, there was a concern about the consequences of Brexit. In particular, there was a fear of the threat to employment rights from this Tory government using a withdrawal from the European Union to light a ‘bonfire of rights’. Yet, a common theme was the inability for many workers to enforce the employment rights they already receive. Richard Burgon MP, a Corbyn-ally, and Lord Falconer, who had previously resigned from Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, as on so many justice issues, agreed that the tribunal fees in employment tribunals were having a devastating effect on access to justice. As Falconer said, the policy is purposely designed to put those of modest income off accessing justice. Lord Bach, who heads a commission looking at legal aid and access to justice in the 21st century, reassured the audience that employment tribunal fees were part of his commission’s stream of work.
In the first conference since Theresa May entered Number 10 Downing Street, there was a renewed focus on efforts to protect the Human Rights Act. Richard Burgon and Shami Chakrabarti admitted to being highly critical of the last Labour Government on many issues, but accepted the Human Rights Act, introduced under Tony Blair’s premiership, remained a milestone achievement in the development of our justice system. Keir Starmer QC noted that the Conservatives’ commitment to scrapping the Act and replacing it with a Bill of Rights was dangerous window dressing to appease the Tory right wingers. Labour can’t let internal divisions in the Tory Party damage the country any more.
As a pupil Barrister who has recently been through the legal education system, I was greatly heartened by a new prominence for issues of access to the profession and the importance of legal education. Both Chantal-Aimee Dorries QC, Chair of the Bar Council, and Joe Egan, Vice-President of the Law Society, emphasised the need to do more to encourage and support students of the law. Whilst studying, fees remain too high. The Bar Council have said it costs over £100,000 for an undergraduate to get to pupillage. Joe Egan emphasised the vast differences in salary at the junior end of the profession. Whilst some graduates will earn huge sums in commercial law, a criminal practice is becoming unaffordable for many. This will have a dramatic effect on the fairness and efficiency of our criminal justice system and many spoke with concern about the impact this will have for the future of judicial diversity.
Finally, there was a renewed emphasis on promoting the role of lawyers in society. Although public opinion of lawyers rivals estate agents and politicians at the bottom of the popularity scale, the legal professionals attending our meetings did not match the stereotype so often proffered. The reality of struggling legal aid practitioners navigating the underfunded courts system for their clients was all too apparent. Meeting members and colleagues at Conference was a very welcome reminder that, fundamentally, the law is an honourable profession that aims to help those that need it most.