- Survey finds people believe system is tilted in favour of wealthy
- Few have confidence to run cases without a lawyer
- Strong support for free legal advice for those on low incomes
- Policies to cut justice budgets out of step with public opinion
Justice is as important to most people as health and education, according to far-reaching research into public attitudes to the justice system in England and Wales, but only 20% think there is sufficient funding in place for those who need legal advice.
The survey of 2,086 people also revealed an alarmingly widespread belief that justice favours the wealthy.
The Populus survey was commissioned by the Law Society, Bar Council and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) to mark the launch of Justice Week, a week of events and activities to boost the profile of justice and the rule of law.
The insights into public attitudes come after successive governments have restricted access to justice more than at any time since legal aid was established in 1949, and indicate that policies to slash Ministry of Justice and legal aid budgets are in fact out of step with public opinion.
Justice Week will run between Monday 29 October and Friday 2 November.
The survey found that:
- 78% agreed that 'Justice is just as important as health or education'
- 76% agreed that 'People on low incomes should be able to get free legal advice'
- 63% said they would feel uncomfortable dealing with the law and legal processes themselves if they were accused of a crime for which a judge could impose a custodial sentence
- Only 13% agreed that 'the state should not have to pay for people's legal expenses if they are accused of an offence that could earn jail time'
For all types of legal issues listed by the survey, at least 50% of respondents said they would feel 'uncomfortable' dealing with them without a lawyer, and for no legal issue did more than 25% say they would feel 'comfortable'.
The findings also revealed that 60% of respondents agreed that 'people on low incomes are more likely to be convicted of crimes than wealthy people'.
Law Society president Christina Blacklaws said: “Cuts to legal aid spending over the past five years have denied justice to the most vulnerable in society, placed a further burden on the taxpayer and damaged the foundation of our justice system.
“Since April 2013, hundreds of thousands of people have become ineligible for legal aid as a result of freezes to means tests as well as cuts to the scope of legal aid, including victims of domestic abuse and people under threat of eviction.”
Chair of the Bar, Andrew Walker QC, said: “While it is increasingly recognised across the world that an effective and accessible justice system is fundamental to a fair and peaceful society, a successful economy and a functioning democracy, many parts of our own justice system have reached breaking point. Not for over 50 years has there been a more pressing need to make the case that a properly funded system of justice is at the core of a democratic government's obligations to its own people.
“This survey shows that the public really does care about justice and thinks that politicians do not prioritise it as they should. There is now a gulf between what people expect from our justice system, and what they are getting. We do not leave the ill to treat themselves without expert medical help, so nor should we expect people to deal with legal problems and disputes without expert legal help if they cannot afford it. As the survey confirms, most of the public do not expect this, yet increasing numbers are being forced to represent themselves in court in very serious and complicated matters such as family separations or disputes with an employer, and far too many are now having to defend themselves in criminal proceedings.”
CILEx President, Philip Sherwood said: “These findings should alarm anyone with an interest in justice. Given the legal aid cuts, a perception that the system is tilted in favour of the wealthy may not be surprising, but it is extremely dangerous and undermines the rule of law. It is incumbent on lawyers and politicians alike to ensure the system is open and fair to all.”
A Justice Week petition calling on the Government to extend the availability of legal aid is now online.
Note to editors
Justice Week is a new initiative setup by the three legal professional bodies; the Bar Council, The Law Society, and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (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 Bar Council and Law Society commissioned the Populus research agency to include the questions on the UK justice system in their omnibus survey. The fieldwork was carried out 28-30 September 2018. 2086 people responded to the questions. The results were weighted back to the actual distribution of the population, to ensure that they were representative of the population as a whole. The average estimated margin of error in the results is +/-2.2%.
About the Law Society
The Law Society 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: Catherine Reed | 020 8049 3768 | 0203 189 1880 | firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Bar Council
The Bar Council represents over 16,000 barristers in England and Wales.
Further information is available from the Bar Council Press Office on 020 7222 2525 and Press@BarCouncil.org.uk.
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 Chartered Legal Executives, paralegals and other legal professionals.
Press office contact: Kerry Jack or Louise Eckersley on 020 3567 1208.