Election pivotal moment for British justice warns Law Society

Solicitors’ leaders today threw the gauntlet down to the political parties, challenging them to put the rule of law and access to justice at the heart of their plans for government.

“This election is a pivotal moment for the country and not just because of Brexit,” said Law Society of England and Wales president Simon Davis, as he launched the organisation’s manifesto.

“Successive governments have stripped back provision of legal aid and left our justice system in a dangerously under-funded state.

“Our legal system has long been seen as the global benchmark and our members fight the corner of some of the most vulnerable in society, including those struggling with mental health issues or personal hardship.

“But there is a crisis, and there are things that urgently need fixing in our justice system. The party that wins this election needs to focus on this or we will lose something fundamental.”

The Law Society is calling on the parties to implement a series of measures if they win power:
  • Conduct an independent economic review of the long-term viability of criminal legal aid; raise criminal legal aid fees in real terms and guarantee no future real terms cuts.
  • Reinstate legal aid for early advice from solicitors in housing and family law. This will help prevent cases from escalating unnecessarily and allow earlier resolution.
  • Increase the civil legal aid means test thresholds so more people can access legal aid. Remove the capital test for those on income-related benefits.
  • Secure a future relationship with the EU that allows lawyers to continue to practise and base themselves in the EU. We believe the best way this can be achieved is through an Association Agreement.
  • Simon Davis said: “UK legal services contributed more than £27.9 billion to the economy in 2018. We contribute £4 billion to net exports. We directly employ more than 380,000 people and support many thousands more jobs in our local communities. We underpin business deals around the globe.

“After the UK leaves the European Union, the law of England and Wales will retain many of the advantages that make it attractive to international businesses, including its predictability, transparency and stability.

“However, preserving the legal sector’s strong economic contribution to UK plc will require close co-operation with the EU and the continued ability of UK lawyers to practise, establish and provide temporary services on the continent.”

Notes to editors

The Law Society manifesto – which you can read here – zooms in on some key areas of concern:

Criminal justice

There is a growing shortage of duty solicitors, the court closure programme has had a profound detrimental effect on access to justice; there is a shortage of independent experts when cases go to trial and problems with disclosure of evidence to defence teams. The effects of this crisis are felt most acutely by some of the most vulnerable people in our society. The same groups are most affected by the barriers to accessing legal aid. A well-functioning criminal justice system is crucial to ensure victims of crime get justice, and those accused of a crime are given a fair trial. Data published by the Law Society show that in five to 10 years we will not have enough criminal duty solicitors in many parts of the country, leaving people accused of crimes unable to enforce their rights.

Access to justice

Access to justice is a fundamental principle that underpins British values and the rule of law. Vulnerable people must be able to use the legal system when they face serious problems in their lives. In England and Wales, these people face significant barriers. Stringent means testing for legal aid has left many – including some living below the poverty line – ineligible for legal aid and unable to resolve their legal problems through the courts. Funding for early advice is a money-saver for society – if people deal with problems before they escalate, we save resources down the line.

Brexit

Currently, UK lawyers and law firms can have a temporary or permanent presence in other EU and European Free Trade Area (EFTA) member states. Without a comprehensive deal, after Brexit, UK lawyers and law firms could find themselves operating under 31 different national regulatory systems across the EU and EFTA, hitting their ability to represent their clients effectively.

Non-EU trade is also crucially important for lawyers and their clients. As an enabling sector for international trade, the next government should seek to negotiate legal services chapters in new free trade agreements with non-EU countries and support efforts to liberalise markets in other jurisdictions.

About the Law Society

The Law Society is the independent professional body that works globally to support and represent solicitors, promoting the highest professional standards, the public interest and the rule of law.

Press office contact: Ben Davies | 020 8049 3750