Ensuring access to justice for all is essential for a functioning democracy
If the government is serious about levelling up, it must invest in key local services, of which the courts are an integral component.
Access to justice is a term broadly defined, often spoken about, and frequently misunderstood. In short, it refers to the legal mechanisms that protect our fundamental rights, offering us a means of redress when they are breached and a system for resolving disputes between individuals and the state.
Much of the debate on access to justice focuses on money. As seen by 19th century jurist Sir James Mathew’s famous quip that “justice is open to all – like the Ritz Hotel,” there’s nothing new about this recurrent concern, but changes to the legal aid system have certainly brought into sharp focus the fear that those lacking financial means are at a disadvantage when dealing with the law.
The Justice Committee has considered this issue in successive reports, and while I understand the significant financial pressures that led to a reduction in the legal aid budget in 2012, the evidence now compellingly shows that those cuts went too far. An unacceptably transactional approach to justice made it difficult for some of the most vulnerable members of our society to secure legal advice and representation, and, ironically, the consequent rise in litigants in person also exacerbated the backlog in our courts (itself a barrier to justice), thereby generating more cost in the long run.
An accessible justice system is essential to any healthy democracy
The government has already started to address that false economy, but there are other burgeoning impediments to justice that mustn’t be overlooked, not least the physical infrastructure of our courts. I was struck by media coverage of a voter in the Hartlepool by-election expressing a feeling of having been “left behind” as a result of the closure of their magistrates’ court and the mothballing of the cells at the local police station. In other words, a sense that the institutions of the state had retreated from the town.
If the government is serious about levelling up, it must invest in key local services, of which the courts are an integral component. The technological advances that enable remote hearings of some cases are certainly welcome, as is the work to identify new venues to dispense justice, but this can not exclude those people – many of whom will be the very same voters who feel left behind – that lack either the equipment or know-how to be able to take part. A physical court, within reasonable distance, should always be an option.
Access to justice also means being able to hold decision-makers to account. The system of judicial review provides an important check against the misuse of executive power, with judges being the “auditors of legality,” to paraphrase the late Lord Bingham.
And finally, access to justice is meaningless if you can not enforce a court’s judgement. The European Commission’s recommendation that the UK should be refused access to the Lugano Convention on civil justice co-operation is a needlessly hostile step that will hurt both sides. It will impact normal people with ordinary problems, like someone seeking child maintenance from an ex-partner overseas. The UK must now look to enter bilateral talks straight away, starting with Ireland.
Politicians and legal practitioners alike have a duty to steer away from the sort of esoteric debate that risks shrouding questions around access to justice in confusion, instead spelling out, in plain terms, why an accessible justice system is essential to any healthy democracy. We can not make that case often, or forcefully, enough.
Sir Bob Neill is the Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst and chair of the Justice Select Committee.