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Access to Justice

Volume 678: debated on Tuesday 14 July 2020

Access to justice is a fundamental right and this Government are committed to ensuring that everyone can get the timely support they need to access the justice system. We have removed the mandatory element of the telephone gateway to support access to advice, and we continue to prioritise work to provide a new £3.1 million grant that will further enhance legal support for litigants in person. In 2018-19, we spent £1.7 billion on legal aid, and in response to disruption caused by covid we are providing £5.4 million in funding to not-for-profit providers of specialist legal advice.

I support strongly what the Government are doing in funding law centres and providing much more information online for our constituents, but how does my hon. Friend think we can access the services where needed of an asylum lawyer at the Gloucester Law Centre? Also, will he ensure that the only magistrates court in our county—in his Cheltenham constituency—will be well funded, so that it can operate efficiently for years to come?

The answer is yes—thank you for pre-empting it, Mr Speaker—but first, may I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for the Gloucester Law Centre, which does fantastic work? The £3 million grant will allow law centres to increase their capacity to provide advice for those who need it. We are also considering the longer-term sustainability of providing legal aid more widely, including for asylum cases, to which he rightly adverts; my officials are working closely with stakeholders on this. As you rightly trailed, Mr Speaker, on court maintenance, we have announced a tripling of funding for repairs and upgrades to include £30 million for the roll-out of the latest video technology. That will be welcomed in Cheltenham and, indeed, Gloucester.

Legal aid lawyers are being asked, yet again, to carry the can for a decade of mismanagement on the part of successive Tory Ministers. Lawyers are now expected to work extended hours for no extra pay to clear the half a million backlog of criminal cases caused by savage cuts. Legal aid lawyers do not support extended or flexible operating hours, but why would they? Their patience and good will have been stretched too far. Ministers know full well that the underfunded justice system means justice denied, so what—if any—representations has the Justice Secretary made to the Treasury for more funding; or is it simply that he just does not care?

Absolutely nothing could be further from the truth. The Government are committed to this. I was a practitioner in 2010 and I well remember when Labour was in government and Labour Members derided the “gravy train” of legal aid. We will never do that, because we recognise its importance. This Government have eased the rules on hardship and interim payments to enable the early drawdown of payment for work done, and for solicitors we have doubled the number of opportunities to seek payment on account. This is really important: we are accelerating work on CLAR—the criminal legal aid review—because we want to put between £31 million and £51 million into the profession as soon as possible. That funding will be released before too long.