The inaugural lecture of the Law Society’s 2019 thought leadership seminars took place on 26 February.
Lucy Frazer QC MP, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, shared her thoughts on what the future holds for the justice system and the legal profession.
The lecture focused on the future of the justice system, particularly in light of the post-implementation review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).
It also explored the role of technology and innovation in facilitating access to justice, including plans for court modernisation and the wider justice system.
Christina Blacklaws, president of the Law Society, introduced the lecture and referred to the government’s post-implementation review of LASPO, published in February 2019.
Legal aid is a lifeline for some of the most vulnerable people in society, but hundreds of thousands became ineligible when LASPO came into force. The effects of the act are being felt across public life.
The proposals to improve the legal aid system are the first positive proposals in the last 20 years. The Law Society hopes the changes will make it easier for ordinary people to qualify for legal aid and will work with the MoJ on the means test.
Christina also highlighted the lack of profitability which makes legal aid work less viable for practices.
The Law Society fully supports working with the MoJ on the increasing use of technology. It partners with Barclays and others in an industry-led LawTech Delivery Panel which was set up by the government and is chaired by Christina.
Lucy Frazer thanked the Law Society for its input into the review and thanked others in the room who had contributed.
She stressed the importance of the legal system and the rule of law, and said that our justice system is renowned across the world. The law is steeped in tradition, but it must embrace modernism. People recruit online, date online, and send millions of messages by social media, and the law must also embrace technological changes.
The MoJ is promoting technology in court reform. The minister referred to her early life at the Bar: barristers once received briefs in pink tape by post, but they now receive them via email, and the pace is much greater - updates are sometimes sent daily.
The MoJ is investing £1 billion in court reform to modernise processes, with online services and digital working. The technology is designed around the needs of users. Already there are online systems for probate, divorce and some road traffic offences. Over 100,000 people have interacted in this way:
- a supplier owed under £10,000 can sue and settle online. People can defend online up to this figure as well. Feedback is very positive
- divorce petitions can be issued online. The rejection rate is down from 40% to 1%
- HMCTS has piloted video hearings in the tax tribunal
The minister confirmed there will always be a need for a physical court, but the sector must seize the opportunities presented by technology.
The MoJ launched a programme in January 2019 to support several projects:
- Advicenow pulls together the best advice resources, including template letters, and is written in plain English. The aim is to empower users
- the government is piloting better ways to signpost people to the best advice. This has already had an impact in child arrangements and out of court settlements
- money has been provided for projects involving LawWorks and Islington Law Centre, and for Legal Beagles, a free online forum
- the MoJ provided around £600,000 to the SRA to work on technological solutions for small businesses
- the MoJ has also provided funding to improve digital resources for separated families
Lucy Frazer stressed that technology is a servant, not a master. In 2018, the MoJ funded £1.6 billion in legal aid, and this support must continue. She noted that the LASPO review was informed and evidence based. There are commitments on scope and improving legal aid.
Carol Storer is chair of the Law Society’s Access to Justice Committee. A version of this article was originally published in the Legal Aid Handbook.