So the Bar Council’s message to politicians during the 2017 General Election campaign is that if we want a justice system that works for everyone, we cannot wait for an upturn in the economy before taking the necessary steps. Published in early May, and aptly named The Value of Justice, the Bar Council’s manifesto has reached politicians on all sides of both Houses. It explains concisely what is needed from the next elected government and why.

Six core values of a justice system

Central to the manifesto is the proposition that our justice system is founded on six core values. They are: judicial independence, legal excellence, stewardship, innovation, humanity and an open market for legal services. The manifesto asserts that these values are under threat and that the next government must commit to restoring them by taking the following steps:

  1. The government must demonstrate its commitment to upholding the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law through a Lord Chancellor whose experience is combined with the requisite authority among ministerial colleagues.
  2. The justice system needs appropriate funding which recognises the value of the judiciary and those who work for the administration of justice so as not to put at risk the standards of excellence for which our legal system and legal professionals are globally renowned.
  3. Our court infrastructure requires investment. Spending on technology and modernisation is vital and the savings they achieve must not come at the expense of necessary human contact or the fairness, openness and quality of trials.
  4. A long-overdue and urgent review of LASPO (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012) is needed, along with steps to remedy the loss of access to justice for the most vulnerable in society.
  5. The government must ensure that decision-making that impacts vulnerable people is subject to strong and independent oversight that is consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.
  6. In exiting the EU, the next government must develop a strategy which recognises the economic contribution and value of the legal services sector, allows citizens to obtain judgments and enforce them across borders, and enables the swift and efficient extradition of those accused of crimes.

Whichever party takes power, the Bar Council will work with ministers, parliamentarians and the media to encourage the new government to take these steps. Even if, after the election, the political direction of travel seems to face away from what the profession believes is in the public interest, the Bar Council will continue to influence the development of policy and define the standard of excellence that our justice system should meet. This is in the public interest and in the interests of the profession.

Why the Bar should intervene

At a practical level, the Bar cannot properly fulfil its function when courts are crumbling, the judiciary is demoralised, and hard-working people cannot access basic legal advice and representation or challenge unlawful decision-making by authorities. These are all problems which could – and should – be addressed by the new government.

Those priced out of justice when court fees are increased and legal aid is removed do not constitute a natural political constituency or movement. Nor do they live in one part of the country or belong to a single party or class. So in times of austerity and constitutional change it is tempting for politicians to put justice at the bottom of the pile of priorities. It is right that the Bar should seek to protect the right of the poor and the vulnerable to have access to justice.

A review of the past few years also reminds us that promoting the values on which our justice system is based can have a positive impact on the development of policy and legislation. 

Pressure from the Bar, other legal professional bodies, charities and public interest organisations has encouraged previous governments to reconsider their positions on the criminal courts charge, cuts to the advocates graduated fee scheme, two tier contracting arrangements, and further increases to enhanced court fees. Interventions by the Bar have also brought about amendments to the Investigatory Powers Bill which moderated plans to diminish the client’s right to legal professional privilege, as well as amendments to the Criminal Courts and Justice Bill to moderate plans to restrict challenges to unlawful decision-making by public authorities. In the event that a Prisons and Courts Bill is re-introduced by the new government, the Bar Council will continue to seek improvements to ensure that the fairness of trials is not jeopardised, that hearings continue to be held in court in appropriate cases and that the introduction of online justice is monitored carefully and properly evaluated.

Even where the policy environment appears to have undergone far-reaching change, such as with LASPO and access to justice, the profession is well placed to continue to make the case for what it believes to be in the public interest.

Contributor Luke Robins-Grace, Senior Communications and Public Affairs Adviser at the Bar Council