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Who should pay for access to justice?

Who should pay for access to justice?

Issues of access to justice – in particular Legal Aid – remain high on the political agenda. Just last week Lord Bach, a Minister for Legal Aid in the last Labour Government, was tasked by the new Labour leader to look again at the issue and to develop policy suggestions for the main Opposition party.

Michael Gove has also clearly been considering the issue. In his first major speech as Lord Chancellor he asked “What does a one nation justice policy look like?” He stated that

“there are two nations in our justice system at present. On the one hand, [there is] the wealthy, international class who can…choose to settle cases in London with the gold standard of British justice. And then [there is] everyone else, who has to put up with a creaking, outdated system to see justice done in their own lives.”

This was significant. It was probably the first time in recent years that a Government Minister has been so forthright in recognising the accumulating problems with our justice system. He did suggest some partial solutions, such as removing waste and increasing efficiency along with a greater use of technology. There is nothing new in these, although the fact that the Lord Chancellor has said that he will give his support is to be welcomed.

Mr. Gove did not, however, promise any “new money” or even a reinstatement of “the old”. The policy of cutting public expenditure in this never-ending “age of austerity” will continue and the non-exempt Ministry of Justice will have to bear its share.

He did make a novel suggestion though. Recognising the difficulties, the inequalities, he said that a solution could be for lawyers to either be subjected to some form of “lawyer only” tax regime or, alternatively – if not in addition – to work for free.

“When it comes to investing in access to justice then it is clear to me that it is fairer to ask our most successful legal professionals to contribute a little more rather than taking more in tax from someone on the minimum wage.”

There may have been an element of “playing to the gallery” here. But the concept of a “Big Society” should not mean that a government concentrates its resources on just those activities which are populist vote-winners and seeks to leave to others those that are not.

Lawyers undoubtedly have a role here, through the pro bono legal work that so many of them already do. But no government can avoid the fact that it has the prime responsibility. After all, the administration of Justice is one of the two major roles, along with Defence, of the State.

These are big issues and surely ones where it is important that the Christian Church has a voice, to remind the Government of its responsibilities, and where Christian lawyers and churches should be taking a lead in filling the gap.

Andrew Caplen is the Immediate Past President of the Law Society of England and Wales, and co-author, with David McIlroy, of the Theos report Speaking up” - Defending and Delivering Access to Justice Today

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Image by Lonpicman from wikimedia.orgavailable in the public domain




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