So much of the debate around ‘access to justice’ is focused on the final stages of the legal process where things have gone so badly wrong that a lawyer is needed. But ‘access to justice’ isn’t just about ‘legal aid’ nor is it just about lawyers.
PLE is the rather unwieldy term that applies to the disparate collection of activities that provides ordinary people with an awareness and understanding of their rights together with the confidence and skill to assert them if needed.
It is fair to say that the fledging PLE movement has never become established in the profession in any meaningful way. But, context is everything, and this collection comes shortly after the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act comes into force effectively filleting our publicly funded legal system. LASPO strips £350 million out of the £2.1 billion budget by removing whole areas of law (most of what is known as social welfare law and family except) and we are now waiting on the Transforming Legal Aid consultation which threatens removing £220 from the criminal scheme.
If ever there was a moment for PLE and innovative projects to assist litigants in person, self-represented litigants or whatever name you want give to a new generation of poor unfortunates who are left to fend for themselves in our courts, then this is now.
Jon Robins , June 2013
‘Our system of criminal justice is not perfect. Despite all its safeguards and the strivings of the vast majority of those of us who are involved in its conduct, a risk of miscarriages remains. Even in the current state of the public finances, we must continue to recognise and to confront that risk. Miscarriages that have taken place, perhaps many years ago, must be identified and put right; the risk of miscarriages in the future must be yet further minimised.
Since it began its work in 1997 the Criminal Cases Review Commission has been responsible for examining claims that a miscarriage has occurred, and for referring to the Court of Appeal cases in which it believes that there is a real possibility that the resultant appeal will be allowed. Aspects of its work have been the subject of criticism. Some have suggested that it should be replaced. Yet over the years since 1997 the involvement of both the media and voluntary organisations in the investigation, exposure and future minimisation of miscarriages has diminished.
Nevertheless, as the deputy chair of the Commission [Alastair McGregor] acknowledges, journalists, pressure groups, academics and others still have vital roles to play in uncovering miscarriages of justice, in ensuring that miscarriages remain matters of real public concern and in keeping up to the mark those who are charged with investigating and/or remedying them.
Against that overall background, we can all agree that further improvements are possible but what should they be? This is thus a question that is ripe for consideration in the Justice Gap series. The result is an excellent and thought-provoking collection of essays by distinguished authors from across the spectrum of involvement and interest… .
In reading the essays I was particularly struck by the different referral test applied by the Commission in Scotland, and by the way in which the Canadian criminal justice system learns lessons for the future when a miscarriage has taken place. Even for the experienced lawyer, the content provides a salutary reminder that anything less than the highest standard of professionalism increases the risk of miscarriages… .
In my view the essays make a valuable contribution to what is a necessary, vital and current debate. I commend them to you.’
Mr Justice Sweeney , March 2011
‘Access to justice’ is not just about access to the courts or litigation. It is a much broader concept. It encompasses a recognition that everyone is entitled to the protection of the law and that rights are meaningless unless they can be enforced. It is about protecting ordinary and vulnerable people and solving their problems. Yet the law is complex such that most ordinary people with small or even moderate means cannot access the law without help.
Earlier this year MPs were given a series of powerful, sometimes uncomfortable, reminders as to the important role of legal aid in protecting access to justice in our society. The event took place in the House of Commons on 2 February 2011. It was organised by the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and the Young Legal Aid Lawyers. The Commission of Inquiry into Legal Aid was a unique event. The exclusive focus was about examining what kind of safety net our system of publicly funded law provides for ordinary people, sometimes poor and vulnerable, who rely upon it.
A series of ordinary people who have used legal aid gave testimony before a distinguished panel of non-lawyers in a crowded committee room 10. The former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, the canon of Westminster Abbey, the Reverend Nicholas Sagovsky and Diana Holland, assistant general secretary of the trade union Unite, weighed up evidence they heard at the session as well as written submissions from the recipients of legal aid and experts.
Unequal before the law publishes the findings of the three panellists, non-partisan and independent-minded experts who all have a long track record of promoting social justice in their communities. By their own account, they are relative strangers to the specifics of legal aid. For this reason, their balanced consideration of all the evidence both ‘for’ and ‘against’ reducing legal aid and their key findings serve as a critical warning as to the importance of legal aid at a time when it is under threat.
This is the third publication, edited by Jon Robins, produced by Jures (www.jures.co.uk) and published by Solicitors Journal in the Justice Gap series which aims to shine light on different aspects of access to justice. The ‘Justice Gap’ refers to the increasing section of the public too poor to afford a lawyer and not poor enough to qualify for publicly funded legal help.
Michael Mansfield QC, May 2011