With the General Election just days away, how do the three main national parties compare on key areas of law and justice policy?
Legal Aid and access to justice
Although new money has been made available for projects like the online court, recent years have seen major cuts in legal aid, court closures and the additional burden on judges of parties being forced to represent themselves. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have promised to review the legal aid cuts.
Labour say they will “immediately re-establish early advice entitlements in the Family Courts” and “reintroduce funding for the preparation of judicial review cases”. They will “consider the reinstatement of other legal aid entitlements after receiving the final recommendations of the Access to Justice Commission led by Lord Bach”.
The Lib Dems promise to “Conduct an urgent and comprehensive review of the effects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act on access to justice, particularly funding for social welfare appeals, and domestic violence and exceptional cases.” They also make a specific pledge to “Reverse the massive increases in court and tribunal fees, which prevent many from pursuing good cases.”
The Conservatives, perhaps not surprisingly, are not promising to reverse their own legal aid cuts or the court fees they ramped up, but instead concentrate on promoting the legal system as an industry: “Legal services are a major British export and underpin our professional services sector. We will continue to modernise our courts, improving court buildings and facilities and making it easier for people to resolve disputes and secure justice.”
Crime and punishment
In what some regard as a surprise move, the Conservatives plan to abolish the Serious Fraud Office, which has chalked up some impressive victories against major corporate crime in recent years, and to merge its operations with the comparatively new National Crime Agency. They see this as a rationalisation intended to “strengthen Britain’s response to white collar crime” by “improving intelligence sharing and bolstering the investigation of serious fraud, money laundering and financial crime”.
Labour would address the prisons crisis by recruiting 3,000 more prison officers and by insisting on a “personal rehabilitation plan” for each prisoner. Moreover, they would put a stop to further privatisation in the prison service.
The Liberal Democrats want to “Transform prisons into places of rehabilitation, recovery, learning and work, with suitable treatment, education or work available to all prisoners; adopt a holistic approach to prisoners with multiple problems, and ensure that courses started in custody can be completed on release.”
But perhaps the most headline-grabbing proposal from the Lib Dems is their plan to legalise cannabis. By introducing “a legal, regulated market” for the recreational drug, they hope to “break the grip of the criminal gangs and protect young people”. As part of the same policy, they would also repeal the Psychoactive Substances Act, which they say has driven the sale of formerly legal highs underground.
All three main parties are proposing solutions to the corporate pay gap and issues of company democracy. What is surprising is that some of the most radical are coming from the Tories, who want a requirement for listed companies to “nominate a director from the workforce, create a formal employee advisory council or assign specific responsibility for employee representation to a designated non-executive director”.
Labour plan to introduce an “Excessive Pay Levy” to address the corporate pay gap, and boost business ethics with legislation extending the duty owed by company directors not just to shareholders (i.e. the owners of the company that appoints them) but also to employees, customers, the environment and the wider public . Employment tribunal fees would be abolished as part of a “20-point plan for security and equality at work” which will also “ban zero hours contracts” and unpaid internships, enforce gender pay auditing, and provide four new public holidays.
The Liberal Democrats would address workplace democracy by giving staff in listed companies with more than 250 employees a “right to request shares, to be held in trust for the benefit of employees”. They would also strengthen worker participation in management by having staff members on remuneration committees and giving employees in listed companies the right to be represented on the board.
All the main parties offer plans to tackle the problem of domestic violence. The Conservatives have pledged to introduce a new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill “to consolidate all civil and criminal prevention and protection orders and provide for a new aggravated offence if behaviour is directed at a child”. The Act would also “enshrine a definition of domestic violence and abuse in law” and there would be a new domestic violence and abuse commissioner.
Meanwhile Labour want to reverse the requirement for victims of domestic abuse to pay doctors for certification of their injuries. They too wish to “legislate to prohibit the cross examination of victims of domestic violence by their abuser in certain circumstances” and to ban “the use of community resolutions as a response to domestic violence”.
The Liberal Democrats also plan to “Review the investigation, prosecution, procedures and rules of evidence in cases of sexual and domestic violence.”
Labour have also promised to introduce a “no fault divorce” procedure, something reformers (including the judiciary) have been urging for some time; but they are the only party to address this, and none of the parties have considered reforming the money claims aspect of divorce, which was the subject of a recent private members’ bill by Baroness Deech (which has now lapsed).
The key issue for media law is the implementation or otherwise of section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2014, which would impose litigation costs on publishers not joining an approved regulator even if they won a defamation case brought against them, and the continuation of the Leveson inquiry into press misconduct. The last government conducted a consultation on this, but it has yet to respond. But the Conservatives are now saying they would not proceed with the inquiry and would repeal section 40, which they associate with a “flawed regulatory system”.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats take the opposite view, and would proceed with the second part of the Leveson inquiry. Both would also set up a review into media ownership to promote plurality.
Paul Magrath is head of product development and online content at the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England and Wales (ICLR). He tweets as @MaggotLaw.