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Going, Going…Gone! The Crisis in Grass Roots Justice

There have been barriers to access to justice for decades. Since Legal Aid has eroded, and private legal fees increased steadily, financial barricades to justice have been building for many years now.

LASPO’s introduction in 2013 decimated the availability of free legal services to the poor and poorly paid in many areas. But the less publicised changes that limited availability of fee remissions had possibly even more impact on availability of justice and to those accessing the Courts, throwing petrol on the flames of the fire and making the justice deficit much more severe.

The hurdles were raised significantly higher again when the coalition government decided that justice should be sold at a profit by imposing ‘enhanced fees’ over and above the cost of administering such claims. Those seeking access to justice must now do so at a premium. However, the worst is yet to come. General application fees, including consent order fees, are due to double despite assisting swift and efficient justice and encourage negotiation and agreement and lower legal costs.

All the while, not to mention at considerable expense, the Government trumpeted the 800 year anniversary of the date of King John sealing the Magna Carta, seemingly missing the irony of its rationale “to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice”. Yet, presumably too many can still get to their Courts, or perhaps the policy has been so efficacious that the courts are now felt to be underused.

Consequently, we are told that yet another fence is to be erected. It would seem that the current government seek to close numerous County Courts and Tribunals across the country making justice that much harder to get to. Whilst the consultation has been published for comment, it states that 83% of citizens will still be able to get to their local Tribunal within an hour and 95% up to an hour away from their local Court, but this still leaves 17% a considerable distance away. Laughably, this was calculated on the assumption that the fictitious litigant is travelling by car, undoubtedly with no consideration of parking fees, congestion charges and of course of traffic, which we all know is not a problem on the empty streets of London.

This will no doubt prove to have an even more severe effect on the most vulnerable people, including those with disabilities who may not have such ready access to their own transportation and are much more likely to be dependent on benefits, which have also been greatly reduced in recent years and are under further threat from the current government.

But what happens to the London Court system should there be a tube strike? It could take litigants a number of hours to get to Court for their trial, with road traffic for buses and taxis increasing significantly. Does this mean cases must be adjourned automatically if the litigant has mobility issues or if their travel would take more than 2 hours?

There is a truth for every justice system – it is not enough for justice to be done, it must be seen to be done. And if the temples of justice are taken from communities and centralised, so that their connection to those communities is diluted or disappears, then can we be sure that it will be seen and felt? Or will distance deprive people of the option to easily access the independent justice that is desperately needed?

Whilst all this is happening, do we have a crisis in justice here in the UK? Apparently not. The current government stays blinkered on justice for the ordinary person, yet celebrates how the UK remains the chosen centre of justice for many companies and wealthy individuals around the world.

…but for how long?

Should we really be enhancing Court fees yet further, in some instances tripling them, when the fee remission system is not fit for purpose in the new enhanced fee regime? Clearly not, particularly when the 2015 report on minimum living standards in the UK by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the disposable income of single parents has decreased by £35.15 per week, and single persons by £26.87 per week since 2008. How can such people access justice when their income is already under such pressure that their standard of living is going backwards? But it is not just those sections of society that are being squeezed. Single persons, couples with children, single parents and pensioners are all significantly below the minimum income standards and much worse off than they were in 2008. The Association of Housing Advice Services, in its 2013 consultation, ludicrously suggests that this can be circumvented by low earners spending merely £2.65 per day on food, £3 per week on household shopping and just £4 per week on clothing. Surely it’s nonsensical to suggest that people eat lentil soup as substantial meal because of their limited income, yet expect these same people to enhanced fees to protect their home or ensure it is safe for them to occupy it.

Is it not the same blinkered approach that means that grassroots sport is ignored and starved of funding and many years later, people wonder why we are not winning world cups or gold medals? Without healthy and strong roots, nothing flowers and only weeds grow.

Let’s work now to save justice for all, before it is too late. By making the system accessible, open and fair.