Along with priorities for the rule of law and Brexit, access to justice represents the third pillar of our Vision for Law and Justice we launched on 5 May.
Access to justice is a fundamental requirement for the rule of law, by which people have their voice heard, exercise their rights, challenge discrimination, and hold decision makers to account. Promoting and protecting access to justice is a constant theme for the Law Society and a core value uniting our profession.
Reinstate legal aid for early advice
To ensure justice is accessible to those who need it, it is important that the next government reinstates legal aid for early advice, particularly in housing and family law. This was removed under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012.
Without free or subsidised early advice, relatively minor legal problems can escalate, creating health, social and financial problems, and placing additional pressure and cost on public services. For example, in housing law, an individual can only get housing advice under legal aid when a problem has become severe, such as serious disrepair of a property, or in cases of actual or threatened homelessness. If free early advice was available, this could resolve such issues before they worsen and become more costly for the individual - and for the public purse.
A lack of early advice has also created problems in the family courts. When removing legal aid for the majority of private family matters, the government hoped to increase uptake in mediation so families could resolve their problems outside of court. However, the numbers of mediation assessments and cases have plummeted, whilst the numbers of litigants in person has risen dramatically – we believe part of the reason for this is because solicitors providing early, valuable advice were a significant source of referrals.
The current situation is not sustainable and increases suffering to the detriment of society. We are keen to work with the next government in order to address this issue.
Scrap moves to increase the small claims limit
The ability to obtain redress for injuries sustained due to the negligence of another is a fundamental principle of English law. We continue to strongly oppose the changes to personal injury reforms introduced by the previous government in the Prisons and Courts Bill.
The Bill did not have time to finish its passage through parliament because of the general election. This does not mean that these reforms will go away as they can be revived under the new government. We are calling for the new government to reconsider proposals to increase the small claims limit, which would make it difficult for people to obtain effective and valuable advice, and to claim compensation for injuries they have suffered because of someone else’s fault. Again, the consequences will be increased cost to other public services.
End the cross-examination of victims of domestic abuse
Over the last few years, the Law Society has worked relentlessly, in partnership with Rights of Women and other organisations, to highlight the problems of victims of domestic violence accessing justice in the family court. We welcome the provisions contained in the Prisons and Courts Bill to stop alleged perpetrators from cross-examining in person a witness who is the victim, or alleged victim, of domestic abuse, and we are determined to continue our work to see the reform implemented after the election.
Legal aid is often the only way someone can bring their case before the courts. In 2015, the House of Commons Justice Select Committee found that 39% of domestic violence victims could not provide the evidence (PDF 1MB) demanded by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), so they were excluded from legal aid. This is why we are also calling for the new government to implement proposals to increase the flexibility of the rules determining whether a victim of domestic abuse can receive legal aid.
To keep up to date with what we are doing and how you can help, visit our General Election page.