In our first Fringe meeting of Party Conference, we welcomed Labour’s shadow justice front bench: Nick Thomas-Symonds, Shami Chakrabarti and Richard Burgon as well as representatives from the Law Society (Simon Davies) and Bar Council (Richard Atkins QC).
Shami started by reassuring attendees that lawyers are at the heart of this shadow front bench (about a third). The Labour Party is and has always been a group which respects human rights, the rule of law and access to justice. A future Labour government would work towards a more diverse judiciary and implement the recommendations of the Bach commission on Access to Justice.
'NTS' agreed that access to justice is at the heart of Labour’s plans. Legal Aid was once a central part of the welfare state and it must be again. Nick particularly stressed the financial benefits of early legal advice. On access to the professions, Nick (a barrister) stressed his desire to put the inns of court at the centre of bar professional training. Simon Davies, vice chair of the Law Society, argued that clients are being let down by our existing legal system and the future is bleak unless this changes and changes fast. He pointed to crises in criminal justice and employment tribunals and a Law Society poll confirming the benefits of early advice. Richard Atkins of the Bar Council hoped that justice showed signs of life and had recently captured public interest more than ever: with the Secret barrister, Liam Allan and Grenfell. U.K. justice is still a well regarded model. On access to the professions, quality people must be incentivised to do welfare and criminal law: not only will there be a loss in quality in representation but there will also be an impact on the quality of judges in the long run. Richard asked for proper investment in Court buildings and digitisation and an end to salami slicing cost savings.
Richard Burgon joined to close the meeting and spoke strongly of a deep crisis in our justice system rooted in cuts that undermine access to justice and the rule of law. Labour and lawyers need to encourage, pressure and demonstrate for new investment while in opposition. Labour’s vision in government will be to build on the Bach review, focusing initially on the return of early legal help, law centres (described as engines of empowerment) and public legal education. In the policy discussion, Nick recommended a duty solicitor scheme in immigration law and stressed the importance of client confidentiality at the border. Shami was instinctively shocked by perverse financial incentives for police to pursue football banning orders. On prisons, Burgon argued the Tories are no longer the party of Law and Order: their unsafe prisons are failing staff and prisoners and society.
Willy Bach was at the meeting and expressed his hope for his work to not find itself left upon the shelf, reminding us of the 2 stages to the report: firstly to influence govt LASPO review as reform is desperately needed; then in returning legal aid to a pillar of the welfare state. In remembrance of Henry Brooke he stressed the hope for a consensus between Lawyers of all political parties, something SLL has attempted to bring together throughout 2018.