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Leigh Day welcomes MPs and Peers report on access to human rights

Law firm Leigh Day has welcomed a report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights which highlights a lack of access for many people

19 July 2018

The Joint Committee of Human Rights has today released a report which claims large areas of the country “legal aid deserts” making enforcement of human rights “simply unaffordable” for many people.

The Committee, made up of MPs and Peers and chaired by Harriet Harman MP, also called on Government Ministers to be fair in their representation of human rights and not to “look the other way when the media misrepresents human rights.”

The committee stressed the need for an independent judiciary saying: “…the independence of the judiciary plays a central role in fundamental UK constitutional values and in upholding the rule of law and enforcing human rights in the UK.”

In the chapter: ‘The Importance of a robustly independent legal profession’ the committee makes clear: “Ensuring that individuals have recourse to the courts in order to enforce their rights depends on the existence of a robustly independent legal profession who feel able to pursue human rights cases without fear or favour.”

Merry Varney, a partner at Leigh Day who gave evidence to the committee in relation to families having access to legal representation at inquests, welcomed the report calling it ‘hard hitting’. In relation to inquests the report states that it is “extremely difficult” for bereaved families “to participate effectively [at inquests] without legal representation, leading to inequality of arms and consequent concerns about fairness, access to justice and compliance with the procedural requirements of Article 2 ECHR.”

Ms Varney said: “Whilst I welcome this report I would urge that access to legal aid is a non-means-tested for bereaved families, wherever an unnatural death occurs in the care of the State, is the only way to provide fairness in the Inquest process.

“There should be no qualification for this access to legal representation, when state bodies have access to internal lawyers and advisers, and regularly benefit from ‘informal/free of charge’ generic advice from external lawyers, who deliver other paid services.”

Today’s report which follows an inquiry which included seven oral evidence sessions with 25 witnesses and received 46 written submissions, highlights “grave concerns for access to justice, the rule of law, and enforcement of human rights in the UK.”

It has made the following recommendations to the Government as it reviews the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO): The Committee recommends that:
 
  • An urgent review of the broader landscape of legal advice and support for people facing breaches to their human rights must be undertaken.
  • The financial eligibility criteria for legal aid must be reviewed and consideration should be given to fully aligning it with the criteria for welfare benefits
  • There should be urgent reform of the Exception Case Funding Scheme which funds only a few hundred cases rather than the 7,000 per year it was expected to support
  • There should be more legal support for families at inquests
  • The powers of the Equality and Human Rights Commission should be extended so that it can take human rights cases on the same basis as it supports equality cases
  • The Government should consider incorporating existing statutory duties to uphold the independence of the judiciary into the Ministerial Code.
  • Media organisations and commentators should be accurate in their reporting of human rights cases; where reporting is inaccurate, corrections should be published with the same due prominence as the original article

Harriet Harman MP, Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, said: “For rights to be effective they have to be capable of being enforced. To do this, we must have adequate and equality of access to legal information and advice; a robustly independent judiciary and legal profession; strong National Human Rights Institutions, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission and a culture which understands the concept of the rule of law, respects human rights and which is supported by the Government.

“At the moment we are seeing the erosion of all of those enforcement mechanisms because of a lack of access to justice and lack of understanding of the fundamental importance of human rights and the rule of law. The Government must act urgently to address this.

“Government, Parliament, the media and the legal profession all have a responsibility to consider the importance of the rule of law, and the role that rights which can be enforced through an independent court system, plays in that. Government must exercise self-restraint and refrain from criticising the judiciary and legal profession.”

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