As we approach conference season, where principles and policies are set out from the platform by party leaders, now is an ideal time to discuss the vital issue of the rule of law, which is a central tenet of our way of life in Britain but which, far too often, is undervalued and undermined.
The cross-party law reform group, JUSTICE, of which I am a Council Member, recently issued a report which examines the very real threats and existing challenges to the rule of law and, most pertinently, why this matters to us all.
Every day, British citizens rely on society’s adherence to the rule of law. It allows everyone in Britain to benefit from, but equally be bound by, the laws of the land. The rule of law is protective in that it shields citizens from arbitrary state power, provides certainty to domestic and international commerce, and preserves the independence and impartiality of our judiciary. The rule of law establishes principles covering human rights and non-discrimination for all, of which I have long been an advocate, as a constituency MP, as a Minister and in my legal practice. It is also one of the reasons why I believe so passionately in our continued membership of the European Convention on Human Rights.
By way of example, if state bodies (such as local councils) cannot ultimately be challenged through judicial review, due to excessive barriers such as costs, delays and lack of transparency, then the social contract between citizen and the state risks breaking down.
JUSTICE’s findings paint a rather sobering picture. Successive governments, of all hues, over the years, have by stealth, if not always by design, incrementally eroded people’s access to justice. The statistics tell their own story – in family law, by the end of 2022, 40% of cases were heard in which neither party were legally represented (rising from 13% a decade before). Only in 18% of cases were both parties legally represented. Yet it is undeniable that a proliferation of litigants in person introduces greater delays and affects those most vulnerable from achieving a just outcome.
Overwhelming delays in the justice system do not help matters, and the backlog is vast. By March 2023 there were over 340,000 outstanding cases at the Magistrates’ Courts and a further 62,000 in the Crown Courts. These delays significantly affect vulnerable complainants and witnesses, particularly in cases that involve rape or domestic violence – but also there is a greater likelihood that delays to cases will cause them to collapse, causing an obvious but avoidable failure of justice.
While I warmly welcome the government’s pledge of an additional £25m for legal aid per year, I urge its swift implementation so that more people find themselves eligible for legal aid as soon as possible. It is also clear that more funding is needed to nurse criminal legal aid back to full health, and we should act fully on the findings of the independent criminal legal aid review, as referenced in JUSTICE’s report.
Fortunately, there are some practical steps set out in the report that would help row back a tide that, according to JUSTICE’s research, has seen the process of law-making become less transparent, less accountable, less inclusive and less democratic. I urge my colleagues at conference to read it and take heed – because if we cannot demonstrate our commitment to the rule of law, what business do we have demanding it of others?
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