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Pricing us out of Justice…..?

By Alison Lobb

I have blogged in the past about the changes to our justice system over the last few years, and the effect these changes will have on the public, restricting access to justice.

Over the last few years the government have:

  • Severely cut the availability of legal aid – at a single stroke meaning that many people have no access to funding for legal advice.
  • Failed to compensate for this by e.g. giving additional funding to advice agencies who are being bombarded for the advice they would have previously sought from solicitors-  meaning that the CAB and other services are now virtually on their knees.
  • Changed the way that personal injury claims are funded so that claimants who are injured through no fault of their own now have to pay a contribution for the privilege of recovering the compensation they are entitled to – even though they only have to incur those legal costs because of someone else’s fault.
  • Brought in very low fixed fees for lawyers dealing with personal injury claims so that this expert and often complex work is being done at the most junior and inexperienced level – leading to mistakes and under-settlement of claims – otherwise law firms would not be able to afford to do this work at all.
  • Introduced prohibitive fees for bringing employment tribunal claims so as to deter anyone who has a claim form seeking redress.
  • Wasted their time and effort bringing in unnecessary laws such as the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Act (SARAH) which just repeats what was already in  our law in any event – albeit adding more confusion.  An expensive way to make a political statement.
  • Moved forward with their plans to decimate the legal aid system further by “reforming” the criminal legal aid system, thus limiting the amount of legal advice available to anyone accused of a crime, even though our law says they are innocent until proven guilty.

I could go on and on and on…..  there seems no end to it all.

If you want to challenge anything the government are doing, you can do that by way of Judicial review.  Oh, wait, they’re trying to reform that as well to restrict the rights of you and me to attempt to overturn unlawful, irrational or unreasonable decisions…..

Most people don’t realise how these cuts will affect them until they actually do.  After all, most people only seek legal advice because they absolutely need to.  Members of the public will get a shock when they discover that what was previously available is no longer there, or financially beyond their reach.  Our courts are already clogged up with the increase in people bringing cases themselves (known as Litigants in Person) – people who often would have been able to settle their claims or would not have let things get that far if they had been able to access legal advice.  There is statistical evidence about the increase in “LIP”s (30% in the family courts alone in 2013-14), the drastic decrease in employment tribunal claims (80%), the backlog of people trying to access advice agencies, the amount of cases involving children in which the parties are unable to get legal representation (89% increase in 2013-14), etc. etc.  Our legal system, of which we were once so proud, is slowly grinding to a halt because cases involving Litigants in Person take longer (50% is the latest figure) and are more likely to need adjournments, or assistance, or even are matters which should not get to court at all.

So for the Ministry of Justice’s next trick – the latest wheeze is to increase court fees by a whopping 600% for money claims over £10,000. Yes 600%.  That’s not a typo.  If you want to bring a claim – say because a builder has let you down and left your house in pieces, or for compensation for significant injuries suffered because of someone else’s fault, it will cost you 5% of the value of the claim, capped at £10,000.  So if your claim is worth £100,000, you will pay £5,000 to the court to issue it.  That doesn’t include any legal fees to obtain the advice you would need to make sure you are doing it right.  For cases worth £200,000 and over the court fee alone will be £10,000 (the maximum currently payable for claims over £300,000 is £1920). These claimants are probably the most vulnerable, people who have suffered devastating injuries, are unable to work and need long term care.  I couldn’t afford that.  Could they? Could you?

In personal injury claims Solicitors have often funded these court fees, to be repaid by the defendants at the end of the matter.  But solicitors’ firms are not bottomless pits of money and most will have to look to their clients for payment upfront, once this regime comes in, considering the eye-watering amounts we are talking about. But what’s the choice?

The government is planning to go ahead with these changes despite opposition from all sides of the profession, the Law Society and the highest judges in the land.  They have admitted that the income these increased fees will bring in is far in excess of what it costs them to service the court system. So there is no real need to hike fees up to such high amounts.  Interestingly their projections are based on the assumptions that “ fee changes will not affect court case volumes” and also that “there are no detrimental impacts on court case outcomes nor on access to justice from any increase in court fees”.  How on earth can they make those assumptions?  Yet again, they are not listening to the people on the ground, doing the job, day to day.  The people who just maybe know what they are talking about.

Access to Justice?

This is not about lawyers worried about their jobs – despite what the media may say.  Granted there is concern about that, but its not protectionism.  Lawyers fund a significant part of the economy by the personal and business taxes they pay, and the people they employ, so should be in the government’s interest to keep them in jobs.  And it’s in everyone’s interests to make sure that future generations want to enter the legal profession to be the advisers of the future – something which is already becoming an issue for criminal law firms.  If the government continue to plough ahead with their “reforms” then we will ultimately see the end of our legal system as we know it – with consequences for all of society.

We have an election coming up.  If any aspiring MPs knock on my door (bet they don’t!) I will be asking them what they will be doing to improve access to justice for you and me.  You might want to ask them too……

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