Access to Justice

Insight | March 2017

Access to Justice
Image: ‘Lady Justice’ by Eraclis Aristidou

What exactly is ‘access to justice’, and why do we need to preserve it? To answer that we need to first understand how the phrase came about, and then why it may be in danger of becoming a legal bygone.

‘Access to Justice’ was a phrase used by Lord Woolf in 1996, when attempting to streamline the litigation processes attached to personal injury claims suffered by everyday people in the United Kingdom. Largely based upon the combined incentives of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and part36 (early offers strategies), it was suggested that by expediting claims, there would by default, become a lesser chance of spiralling legal costs, and reluctance of the poor seeking recovery for damages sustained in events beyond their control.

While from a superficial slant this ‘quickening’ of justice appears to embrace those without the means of representation and the legal acumen to work alone, it is now suggested that in fact the contrary has become true. With the collective impact of legal aid cuts, increased court fees and numerous court closures, the resulting options take on a less attractive sheen, in lieu of the growing hesitance to seek legal reparation. This gross misdirection translates as a more cloaked prevention, over the illusion of equitability, and to date there are now many activists campaigning for a dramatic change in policy.

As was discussed in my own academic paper, the dangers inherent to early offers far outweigh the genuine reward for pursuance of authentic remedy, but unless fiscally challenged claimants are determined enough to transcend the aggressive manoeuvres of defendant representatives, the odds will by majority, remain stacked against them. This in effect, strangulates the innate purpose of accessible justice, and places far greater value upon the currency of industry; therefore while far from helping the weak, it runs a calculable risk of leaving them powerless and unable to fight back.

Legal Aid

In a report published in October 2016, Amnesty International summarised that three key groups were directly affected by arbitrary cuts to legal aid support, namely (i) the vulnerable, (ii) the transitory and (iii) the disabled. And while taking great strides to illustrate the far-reaching consequences of such inconsiderate narrowness, the message was quite simply that:

“Amnesty International is therefore calling on the UK government to urgently fulfil its promise to review the impact of the cuts and take steps to ensure the right of the most disadvantaged sectors of society to access justice is adequately protected.”

 Writing as a father of a special needs child, the first and third groups possess immediate implications for families similar to my own, who for one reason or another, might find themselves facing legal action, whether through public body frustrations, or simple damages-based incidents. Yet knowing that in the first instance there is no legal counsel, and no validation of a right to claim without parallel concerns of costs, there remains only the stark realisation that the price of justice now relies upon the roll of a loaded dice.

Legal Costs

Interestingly, while this area of discussion might prove hard to quantify with any  degree of exactness, the Legal Ombudsmen publication ‘Ten Questions to ask your Lawyer about Costs‘, proves instantly invaluable when evaluating the merits of private law claims.  More notably, recent changes to the fixed fees threshold within litigation, has to some extent, appeased the fears of those predominantly affected by previous reforms; yet the issue remains that claimants subject to a deprivation of counsel (pro-bono or otherwise), might still think twice before filling out their CNF forms. This is a frank but cautious sentiment echoed by Jonathan Smithers of The Law Society, who remarked:

“A single approach for all cases, regardless of complexity, will lead to many cases being economically unviable to pursue which undermines the principle of justice delivering fairness for all.”

However, when all is said and done, it is unlikely that both the practice industry and public interest will ever read from the same page, but that should never encourage the marginalisation of legal support in a world that is only becoming more crowded and prone to collisions of priority.

The Courts

While there is understandable anger at the gradient closure of almost 90 courts across the country, the promise of a heavily invested tech and user-friendly system, could prove the one positive in this tempering of justice, and so it would be remiss to level accusations of deliberate prevention, when the suggestion of ‘pop-up’ courts is peddled through various forms of digital media.

There is however, cause for concern when terms such as ‘makeshift’ and ‘public houses’ are used in the same context as the ‘fair’ and ‘reasoned’ dispensation of justice, within  an (albeit shrinking) framework of purpose built environments, before calm and attentive audiences. In fact, one might go so far as suggest that legal discourse is becoming diluted, by virtue of the fact that ‘quickie’ courts will themselves, overlook the precision of judicial application in favour of higher case turnover. Contrastingly, the option to pursue legal ends through online portals would seem to proffer greater structure, less chance for media intrusion and a significant cost saving, as was shown during Gary Linker’s recent divorce.

In closing, the point in greatest need of clarification, is that the true meaning of ‘access to justice’ is not one of quick fixes to complex problems. Rather it is about an equal right to a domestic jurisprudence generations in the making. By weakening the fabric of reparation in favour of mass appeasement, the English judicial system will only prove itself counter-productive and rushed; and so it is crucial that any consideration for public interest, and those employed to serve them, must be delicately balanced, rather than a mere continuance of treating every legal problem like a nail.

Future Law

Insight | February 2017

Future Law
Image: ‘Into the Future’ by Trilby Cole

The world is in an increasing state of flux, and we are all racing to keep up. While there are countless casualties of the speed at which this is happening, the emerging impact upon law, and how it is both written and applied, is in need of collective address. We cannot reasonably hope to continue existing as island communities, instead there is a genuine need to share a goal of jurisdictional interdependence; a process that is already in delicate motion, despite entrenched political and religious divergence, or the increased polarity of wealth.

How these legal adjustments will materialise is still hard to quantify with precision, but there is evidently a number of academic and professional opinions echoing a similar message, and it is perhaps time that the global community started to at least consider the plausibility a uniform rule of law, instead of assuming that the status quo can continue to remain effective.

Regular contributor to domestic industry news is The Law Society, whose recent article ‘The Future of Legal Services‘ touches upon a number of nationally indicative trends that convey a similar pattern to those held here; and key elements such as the growth of national and international economies, along with the quantum progression of technology, are instrumental in shaping emerging legal practices and the prevalence of market-adjusted pricing. However, it is just as important to note that the converging of political manifestos will ultimately produce a narrowing of access to justice, through global regulation and a fierce preservation of economic interests.

In fact, one of the many questions asked of law graduates seeking training contracts, is how they feel the merging of investment and banking sectors will influence the overall operation of multi-national law firms, as a growing number seek consolidation to navigate the undercurrent of change. While it is a reasonable question in itself, it demonstrates a lack of cognisant awareness to the effects of destabilisation, despite history showing that the only real constant is change.

In contrast, we need only look at driverless cars to appreciate the impact automation of transport will have upon civil litigation and road traffic accident claims, as after all who becomes liable when injury does occur? There are also suggestions that mechanised judges could prove the way forward when trying to manage the algorithms of robot-created journalism, and how best to decipher the rights from the wrongs, as was discussed in a recent paper in the European Journal of Law and Technology; an article that ponders not only possible extinction of the human prose, but the relevance of solicitors when complex cases require meticulous attention to detail, and a diverse range of case material to help develop laws.

Similarly, when an internationally administrative view is expressed, the cautionary sentiments remain just as poignant when considering that the reluctance to welcome organic growth leaves a lot to be desired. This concern was remarked by Angel Gurria OECD Secretary-General back in 2015, when she spoke at the UK Global Law Summit and warned:

“The classic model for the development of international law is not always adapted or even adequate to this rapidly changing environment. In contrast, the negotiation of major international conventions or agreements is often slow and painful. In some cases  it has come to a complete standstill.”

So when we contemplate the hybrid mechanisation of justice and legal discourse, we also embrace a fear that risks crippling those students seeking to secure their place in all areas of practice. Although there is no doubt that an empathic and world-experienced lawyer can undoubtedly help lead the charge into this new era of dispute resolution. However, such an endorsement is shallow by design if the industry does nothing to exploit attributive software in lieu of effective human centred mediation, as was pointed out by Adam Nguyen of Law Technology Today, who writes:

“Although technology is taking over many aspects of lawyer’s jobs, automated tools are adept at rescuing lawyers from low-level and repetitive tasks, such as document management, contract review, filing, docketing, billing and accounting which bear little connection to law practice but increasingly consume much of lawyers’ time.”

Whichever way we choose to look at it, the increasingly immediate need to synergise with autonomous (and ultimately supportive) forms of non-human legal administration (and even algorithmic case determination) is inching closer, and while it may send shivers up some spines, it would be unwise to overlook the total number of fail cases falling victim to poor preparation, and the unimaginative cross-referencing of legal resources; all of which dilutes down to shedding the fear in the face of this unavoidable truth, in order to nurture better lawyers, lawmakers and judges, regardless of geography and jurisdiction.