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Access to Justice

Volume 683: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2020

Access to justice is a fundamental right and the Government are committed to ensuring that individuals can get the timely support that they need to access the justice system. In 2018-19, we spent £1.7 billion on legal aid for those who needed it. In response to the destruction caused by covid-19, we have introduced measures that include scheduling more than 100 additional Saturday court sittings each month; providing funding to not-for-profit providers of specialist legal advice, such as law centres; and rolling out the cloud video platform to enable remote hearings in all civil, family and criminal courts.

The Government have failed to provide any significant additional support for legal aid practitioners. The breaking point for many firms is likely to come in 2021, especially as the volume of completions in the Crown court remains low. Many legal aid firms and practitioners urgently need financial support to survive, so will the Government announce new measures to support legal aid lawyers over the second national lockdown?

Legal aid lawyers do a magnificent job of ensuring access to justice. I am pleased that the Government have been able to roll out support through furlough and so on, but it is also important that in this second lockdown the courts are continuing. It is really important to note that the magistrates courts are dealing with more cases than they are receiving, and the Government have accelerated CLAR 1, the first criminal legal aid review, which means that defence solicitors, for example, are being paid to review unused material—something that did not happen under a Labour Government.

We know that too often the courts are clogged up partly because too little has been done to minimise crime in the first place, which is why it is astonishing that in Cambridgeshire the number of police community support officers is to be halved, particularly at a time when they have a key role to play in covid compliance. Will the Minister join me in condemning those cuts and demanding that they be withdrawn?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I hope he will welcome the fact that this Government are recruiting an additional 20,000 police officers. It is those officers who will crack down on crime and ensure that people who rob innocents and cause violence end up getting their just deserts.

Court users deserve the fullest protection from covid while they access justice, as do the staff who serve them, yet there have been an alarming number of outbreaks at courts and tribunals throughout the country, including at Manchester magistrates court and others near my constituency. Does the Minister agree that by failing to consult properly with the staff union, the Public and Commercial Services Union, over risk assessments, the courts service risks making a bad situation much worse?

I pay tribute to the staff of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service whom I had the privilege of meeting when I went to Isleworth Crown court. It is the staff who are keeping courts running in extremely difficult circumstances: they are the ones who have ensured that the perspex is there, that the jury retirement rooms are properly socially distanced and that the jury assembly points are well administered. I pay tribute to them for what they are doing, and it is a testament to their achievements that the courts will continue to do what they do best: dispensing justice in our country.

Equality before the law is a fundamental right, but for the vast majority of people in the country who are not eligible for legal aid, that right does not actually exist. Facing a difficult winter, even greater numbers will find themselves trapped in the justice gap of being forced to choose between legal representation and the basic essentials, as 94% of working single parents—mainly women—already do. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that the rights that we hold dear actually exist in practice?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that ensuring access to justice is of fundamental importance, which is why, when we saw that the law centres, for example, were going to have difficulties during this pandemic, we answered the call and provided them with the funding. I was also able to speak to a great number of them to reassure them about the work that they were able to continue doing. That was the right response to take, and we are proud of the actions that we took.