It is widely considered that one of the main drivers of the enormous NHS trust deficits is Government cuts to training places. All very well in theory, but at 1 o’clock in the morning when a busy trauma department is filling up with patients and needs staff, what are they supposed to do? Turn patients away? Of course not. Their only alternative is to turn to agency staff, a much more expensive option, but often the only option. Worse still, it’s not like the government couldn’t have seen this coming.
Returning to the law, the Government have been reducing the general public’s access to legal services for going on three years now, and one of their wheezes for this year, has been virtualisation of the courts and court process. In other words, move the litigation process online, reduce the staffing bill, and close the courts.
So, having created an advice vacuum with their policies of the last 2-3 years the Government is talking about Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) as if it is a panacea to cure the very vacuum they have created, and yet it obviously cannot possibly be any such thing. What it will actually do is replace the system we have now; people using physical court buildings and staff to process and adjudicate their disputes, with a virtual place and process. It will not, and cannot, replace legal advice. To suggest otherwise, is analogous to suggesting that if you close down hospitals and take doctors out of the equation, you can replace them with a self-diagnosis and prescription website. Utter, utter, tripe.
I left partnership in a firm to set up my own practice 6 months ago, which is aimed at assisting small businesses and consumers with contractual disputes at low fixed fees, and which was prompted by another government policy, their doubling of the small claims limit 30 months ago to £10,000. The carnage I have seen, and helped people through, in the last 6 months has to be seen to be believed:
- People with substantial disputes taking legal action by themselves,
- Making a mess of things,
- Wasting court time with numerous unnecessary hearings required to repair the damage caused by their errors,
- and judges tearing their hair out at the time wasted and the number of unnecessary court attendances,
– all caused by the same mindset that has produced this announcement- “The justice system therefore needs to adapt to make sure that people can still access it without lawyers by a process designed to work without lawyers” (The Right Hon. The Lord Thomas Of Cwmgiedd Lord Chief Justice Of England And Wales, 25th September 2015) – an absence of lawyers. Had the small claims limit not been raised, many of those people could have afforded lawyers, because if successful, they could have recovered the money they were spending on legal fees.
In the last month, I was hired by a client less than a month before her trial, to try to help her. She was involved in an acrimonious contractual dispute with a business lender. It was only at that point that she realised that she was in trouble. She had a very good argument that the case, which was run (badly) by professional lawyers against her, was unfounded. Unfortunately, because she had only a limited understanding of the law, she was blind to a critical development in the case which destroyed entirely her chances of defending the case, only a couple of months after she started. Had she been legally trained, she would have seen it immediately. Even the judge at the final hearing told her that theoretically, she had a good argument, but that she had lost the chance to capitalise upon it. Had she hired a lawyer a year ago, when the dispute first began, she may have avoided a substantial judgement against her which was awarded a week ago.
Her position would have been no different had the court been online.
The Government’s attitude to litigation is that it is “very much an optional activity”. I doubt that my client felt that she had much option when she was trying, and failing, to save her business without the help she needed, and could not afford.
And yet the government persists in pursuing policies time and again which withdraw legal help from all but those with the money to afford it. Even GPs have reported an increasing number of consultations with patients who have unresolved legal needs, which are adversely affecting their life, their mood and therefore their health.
Perhaps perversely, this all reminds me of a brilliant scene in Blackadder 4:
Blackadder – Would this brilliant plan involve us climbing over the top of the trenches and walking very slowly towards the enemy?”
Darling – How did you know that, Blackadder? It’s classified information.
Blackadder – It’s the same plan that we used last time, sir. And the seventeen times before that.
Melchett – E-e-exactly! And that’s what is so brilliant about it. It will catch them off-guard. Doing exactly what we have done eighteen times before will be the last thing they’ll expect us to do this time”.
And there is the problem. They keep repeating the same behaviour, expecting different results:
- The Government’s policy of reducing the cost of legal aid for civil and criminal work has resulted in less access to lawyers, and therefore less justice.
- The Government’s policy of introducing significant employment tribunal fees has led to a 73% drop in tribunal claims, many of which must surely have been justified.
- The Government’s policy of increasing the small claims limit has resulted in more people, and, significantly for the economy, small businesses, who have less access to lawyers and therefore reduced access to justice.
- The Government’s policy of withdrawing legal aid for family work has resulted in people having less access to lawyers, and therefore significantly less access to justice, and has also put many more women and children at risk of physical harm.
- The Government’s policy to restrict access to Judicial Review, is reducing the ability of the country to hold the Government to account.
- The Government’s policy of increasing court fees by up to 600% is taking justice out of reach of the average person. As did the court fee rise in 2014, and as will the proposed fresh batch of court fee rises. Shailesh Vara’s comment that such a hike in court fees is no serious risk to legal services, is as patronising and demeaning to our intelligence as many of the other abject denials made by this Government of harm to our judicial environment by their policies.
This is particularly so when the Government have already admitted that they pushed many of these changes through without any, or any effective, consultation.
Most of their reforms so far have had the cumulative effect of removing access to legal representation, advice and assistance. Taking lawyers away from people has caused this – saying that they will have to get used to it is not going to fix the problem, and is only going to make it worse.
At the start of this year, 87% of lawyers thought that legal representation was no longer a right. The LCJ appears to have just given that view his blessing!
This is the clearest confirmation yet that the Government does not WANT people to have legal representation. In fact, it mirrors their stance on Judicial Review, where restricting the scope of JR would reduce the likelihood of challenge to Government policy.
For the last six years, the Government has been behaving like a cowardly schoolyard bully, trying to ensure that the fight is unfair, and is rigged in their favour.
ODR cannot replace the need for legal representation, and neither can any “virtual” court system the Government intends to introduce. Representation, advice and legal assistance will still be needed, whatever system the Government puts online, because, just as in medicine, people need the help of experts in their field. They cannot solve complex legal problems by navigating a few decision trees online, and furthermore, regardless of the views of the LCJ, unrepresented litigants taking action against a large business (who will very likely still be legally represented), or vice versa, will still be at a disadvantage to the represented party, as in my client’s case.
As the Guardian says in their article above “What the figures do not convey is the sheer human misery of being unable to get legal advice”.
In May, I wrote an article entitled “The Sick Society”, in which I made a number of predictions as to the likely path of society if this Government’s judicial policy does not change. None of those predictions have changed, but there is a growing wealth of evidence that they are already happening. They are:
• with fewer controls on employers, combined with an ever more competitive marketplace, there is likely to be a steady increase in the number of unemployed and underemployed people (zero hours contracts and those on unpaid apprenticeships and internships notwithstanding);
• an increase in the number of innocent defendants choosing to plead guilty in order to avoid punitive court fees if their case is lost;
• an uphill struggle for small businesses and injured people, who will find it increasingly harder to achieve redress against defendants with greater means;
• a long term deterioration in familial relations, due to all of the above, and also due to there being no effective method available for spouses and parents who cannot afford legal advice and assistance to resolve their issues;
• a concomitant impact on the social and emotional development of children, the nature of which can only be guessed at, but which is obviously not going to improve;
• with all of the above we are also likely to see an increase in mental health issues with a resultant increasing burden on the NHS. In fact, this has already been found to be the case, even in children.
Parliament’s own report into the impact of these changes, the “Impact of changes to civil legal aid under Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012” states:
“80. Witnesses observed that demand for [legal] services was going up, partly as a result of the legal aid reforms but also because of other reasons such as changes in the benefits system and immigration rules, pressure on housing and rising use of zero hours contracts.”
This isn’t just my opinion. It is happening.
Justice is, and always has been, at the core of our society. So instead of saying that people will have to get used to life without lawyers, the Government should be finding a way to restore contact between the general public and the legal services they once had, but have, under the last two Governments, lost.
It is truly a sad reflection of our leadership, that all of this is happening in the year in which falls the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, but this fundamental affront to our proud legal heritage also highlights the clear agenda of the incumbents; that justice should no longer be defined as “Just behaviour or treatment: a concern for justice, peace, and genuine respect for people” [Oxford Online Dictionary], but as a commodity to be bought only by those with sufficient means to afford it.
Everyone else will have to DIY.
Meanwhile, I have to get back to work. My hot water boiler has packed up, and I’m sure that with a £5 toolkit and a modicum of common sense, I can replace it and have the taps running hot by tea time…
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