No trade-off between rights and health, new study reveals

New research shows UK citizens place equal value on the law to protect health as to protect rights and freedoms even during the pandemic, the legal professions of England and Wales said as they published the results of a rights health-check for Justice Week 2021.

“People don’t expect the rule of law to take a backseat in a time of national emergency,” the leaders of the three branches of the legal profession* said.

“As measures to control the pandemic affect so many aspects of our lives, it’s heartening to know that there is no evidence people think the law should protect health at the expense of rights and freedoms.

“We don’t know when or how we will emerge from the eye of the COVID-19 storm, but as we do it is vital the many layers limiting rights and freedoms that have been put in place are peeled back.”

The research revealed important findings about the state of democracy in the UK. While three quarters of respondents said living in a democracy is important,** fewer than half agreed our democracy is working well, less than one in five said democracy is getting better and a worrying 41% said it is getting harder to enforce rights. A similarly low number (just over one in six) agreed that people in Britain are more free.

Backing this up, four out of five people said it is important that government obeys the law, rising to almost nine in 10 of the over 55s. In line with this, three quarters of respondents (75%) said it is important or very important that politicians understand how the law works, although just 46% agreed that politicians generally understand how the law works’ (up from 39% in 2020).

In terms of understanding how the law works, although three out of five people said this is important, only one in five (22%) said schools teach this, and 30% said the media explains how the law and courts work.

More than two thirds of people said that after the pandemic it is important people have the same ability to uphold their rights and access legal advice as they did before.**

However, the pandemic has hamstrung a justice system that was already suffering from years of underfunding. Courts and tribunals capacity was further reduced because of the need for social distancing and 56,000 cases are now in a queue for the Crown Court which stretches into 2023. Over 70% of the public said they were concerned about this backlog in the criminal courts.

The legal leaders added: “Justice Week aims to help people understand how the law works so they can be more actively engaged with the justice system and democratic processes.

“Some of the concerning findings from this poll may stem in part from restrictions on our freedoms to control the pandemic and the fact that during lockdown some of the most vulnerable citizens – those at risk of domestic violence, people living in care homes – have struggled to access justice when they have most needed it.

As we emerge from lockdown, government would do well to look to restore confidence in democracy and bolster the beleaguered justice system so people can access legal advice to protect and uphold their rights in times of need.”

Notes to editors

*Justice Week is an initiative set up by the three legal professional bodies; the Bar Council, the Law Society and CILEX. The purpose of the week is to boost the profile of justice and the rule of law, helping to place them at the centre stage of public and political debate.

  • The president of the Law Society is David Greene
  • The chair of the Bar Council is Derek Sweeting QC
  • The chair of CILEX is Professor Chris Bones

** On a 10-point scale, a score of 8-10 indicated important to very important.

For the complete data set, contact harriet.beaumont@lawsociety.org.uk.

Yonder was commissioned to conduct this poll.

Key findings

The role of the law in upholding and protecting rights

  • 68% said the role the law plays in protecting people’s health, wellbeing and security was important or very important to them (8 or above on a scale of 1 to 10, where 0 is not important at all and 10 is very important)
  • 70% said the role the law plays in protecting people’s freedoms was important or very important
  • 67% said the role the law plays in making sure democracy works well was important or very important

Democracy

  • 73% said living in a democracy is important or very important to them (again 8 or above on a scale of 1 to 10)
  • 45% agreed “our democracy is working”, but only 17% agreed (38% disagreed) that our democracy is getting better, while a mere 19% agreed that “people in Britain are becoming more free”
  • 79% said it is important or very important the government obeys the law, with a wide variance with age – 87% of those aged 55+ versus just 66% of those 34 or under

Citizens’ rights

  • 66% said the idea of being able to enforce their rights as a citizen is important or very important (8 or above on a scale of 1 to 10), but 41% agreed “it is becoming harder to enforce your rights” (14% disagreed)
  • 69% said it is important or very important to them that people have the same ability to enforce their rights after the pandemic as they did before, and 38% agreed COVID-19 will not have a permanent effect on our rights and freedoms
  • 69% said it is important or very important that people have the same access to legal services after the pandemic as they did before, although only 41% thought that people are generally able to access the legal services they need, when they need them

Understanding the law

  • 62% said it is important or very important that ordinary people understand how the law and courts work, while 53% agreed they felt they personally understood how the law works
  • Only 22% agreed “schools teach how the law works”, while 30% agreed “the media explains how the law and courts work” (up from 21% in 2020)

About the Law Society

The Law Society of England and Wales is the independent professional body that works globally to support and represent solicitors, promoting the highest professional standards, the public interest and the rule of law.

Press office contact: Harriet Beaumont | 020 8049 3854

About the Bar Council

The Bar Council represents approximately 17,000 barristers in England and Wales.

Press office contact: Steve Rudaini | 020 7611 1429

About CILEX

The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX) is one of the three main professional bodies covering the legal profession in England and Wales. The 20,000-strong membership is made up of CILEX Lawyers, paralegals and other legal professionals.

Press office contact: Louise Eckersley, Black Letter Communications | 0203 567 1208