Years of cuts to legal aid mean the UK is “heading towards a two tier justice system”, Counsel General Mick Antoniw today warned.
In a keynote speech to the Legal Wales conference, he contrasted the devastating cuts to legal aid with the “obscene” amount of money spent by the UK government on prisons and called for a greater focus on alternatives to custody and help to prevent people offending.
His comments echo those made by the 2019 independent Commission on Justice in Wales. Chaired by Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, it found people were being let down by the justice system and recommended significant reforms.
In his speech to the conference today, the Counsel General and Minister for Constitution said:
“In Wales and in the rest of the UK we are heading towards an increasingly two tier justice system.
“One where those with the necessary resources have access to the justice system and those without – usually the poorest and most vulnerable in our society – do not and are effectively excluded from it, often just becoming, disempowered, angry and frustrated victims of the justice system and whatever it delivers to them.
“The Welsh Government is not funded to step in and fill these gaps in legal aid provision, although, as acknowledged in the Thomas report, we have attempted to at least meet some of the most desperate areas of need.”
The UK government removed legal aid from large areas of civil law, while criminal cases are subject to means testing, to reduce the annual cost of legal aid.
The Welsh Government’s Single Advice Fund supports people who need advice and can help with representation at court and tribunals, but it is not a replacement for legal aid.
Calling for a different approach to criminal justice policy and sentencing, the Counsel General added:
“The single biggest problem with Wales’s justice system is the number of people going to prison, and the length of time they are spending there.
“The amount the UK government spends on prisons is obscene, especially when contrasted with a decade of cuts to legal aid and of budgets for courts, prosecutors, probation services and many other elements of the justice system.
“If we had the power to set criminal justice policy and sentencing, we could reduce the prison population and invest the savings in alternatives to custody, or in the things that stop people offending in the first place.”
The Legal Wales Conference, hosted at the Law Library at the Law Courts in Cathays Park, provides a platform for discussion on constitutional and legal developments in Wales.