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Legal Aid and litigants in person

I realised quite recently that I had not done any “networking” or marketing for a while. All lawyers need to be seen from time to time to remind friends, colleagues and clients that they still exist. This coincided with an invitation to a business lunch with our local MP and Chris Grayling. Mr. Grayling is well known to lawyers, as he is both Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor.

In a sudden rush of blood to the head I booked myself onto the lunch and immediately prepared a number of questions for Mr. Grayling around access to justice, something any Lord Chancellor, traditionally a largely non-political role, should be fighting to protect and promote. A raft of measure over the last five years have seen huge reductions in legal aid, big increases in court fees and a massive rise in litigants in person in the courts. Those that financially qualify for either the limited legal aid which exists or for a reduction in the court fees payable have such a rigid means assessment process to go through that many give up or loose out because they are unable to provide the wads of documents demanded to prove that they qualify.

This is not just a lawyer trying to hang onto his work. Criticisms of Mr Grayling’s and the government’s approach on these issues and their effect on access to justice have come from the Lord Chief Justice, the President of the Family Division, Lords Justice of Appeal and the Commons Justice committee, to name but a few.

Imagine my surprise therefore to be seated at lunch next to the man himself. For 45 minutes I monopolised him. The experience was - interesting.

My opening gambit was over the levying of fees in the employment tribunals. Since their introduction about 18 months ago, tribunal applications have dropped by around 70%. Of those who made an application for fee remission on grounds of income, only 25% were successful. Whilst of course quite a number of claims without merit will have been rightly weeded out, it is equally certain that many people have not claimed because they cannot find the £1,200 required to issue a claim and bring it to a hearing. This is against a background of employees’ rights, such as not to be discriminated against or not to be unfairly dismissed, all being granted by Parliament.

Our Lord Chancellor’s reply (bearing in mind his role in promoting the rule of law and our system of justice) was that something had to be done to protect employers from facing unmeritorious claims. Whilst true, this is a wholly different issue from the right of access to the courts for those who do have a claim. It was ironic that this conversation came the same week that Nigel Farage of UKIP was on the record as saying that any government he formed would sweep away the discrimination laws.  In many respects one could say Farage was being the more honest in coming out in saying what he thought; more honest than giving people the rights with one hand and then preventing them in practical terms from exercising them with the other.

I have to report that the rest of the conversation was in a similar vein. The government’s belief that litigants should pay the whole cost of the justice system via court fees – a dubious proposition given that like defence and policing an accessible justice system is something government has a duty to provide  – has seen some court fees rise by more than 600%. One recent claimant I heard about with fairly catastrophic personal injuries will now probably not be able to afford the £10,000 court fee to issue his claim, valued at over £200,000. This amounts to a denial of justice.

Clearly though, to believe our Lord Chancellor, there is something of a conspiracy amongst lawyers and judges against his department’s approach to access to justice.
Being a minister of Justice is one thing. Appointing a non-lawyer with a clear political agenda to the role of Lord Chancellor is quite another and devalues it still further.

Julian Gibbons
19th March 2015

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