Law: What price justice?

The Access to Justice Bill is trying to make the legal system better and cheaper.

How much does it cost to have a justice system? According to the figures published by the Lord Chancellor's Department in its White Paper on modernising justice, there are 80,000 lawyers in private practice, with a total annual fee income of about pounds 8bn. The work of all the courts and tribunals in the system is supported by 25,000 staff, and costs pounds 900m a year to run. When the provision of legal services is presented as mere debit and credit figures, it inevitably gives rise to the accusation that the law reformers, like accountants, know the price of everything but the value of nothing - including a system of justice.

Lord Irvine of Lairg published the Access to Justice Bill last week, and both lawyers and consumer bodies have been digesting the proposals, and warning of the implications for the legal system and its users.

Vicki Chapman, head of policy at the Legal Action Group, says: "The Bill has the potential to be very good - it tackles the problem that the current system is too fragmented, and needs to be more integrated. The proposal to prioritise social welfare law and pull together the types of funding is also to be welcomed - but we need more detail."

The twin aims of the proposals are "to bring about a significant increase in access to justice, and obtain the best value for the taxpayers' money spent on legal services and the courts".

As Geoff Hoon, the minister of state in the Lord Chancellor's Department has commented: "It is no secret that lawyers are not terribly popular - most people would prefer taxpayers' money to be spent on hospitals. The twin criticisms of the Bill, from lawyers and the more outspoken MPs such as Austin Mitchell, is that the reforms are driven by cost-cutting, and are more likely to restrict access to justice.

A new body is to be set up, the Legal Services Commission, which will be responsible for establishing a Community Legal Service, and will co- ordinate the provision of legal services in every community, and match services to needs. The commission will also manage the Community Legal Service Fund, which will replace legal aid in civil and family cases. The commission will buy services for the public under contracts with lawyers and other providers, such as Citizens Advice Bureaux. Eligibility for getting help from the fund and for advice and assistance will be decided under a new funding assessment which will replace the existing merits test.

For those who do not qualify for help from the fund, the Government is developing more extensive legal insurance products, and is also proposing to extend and improve the existing conditional fees arrangements. Under a conditional fee agreement, the lawyer will be paid only if the case is won - a no-win, no-fee basis. An insurance policy will be taken out to cover the costs if the client loses, and this is currently funded by a one-off premium for cover up to pounds 100,000. But, according to Michael Napier, senior partner at the law firm Irwin Mitchell, and chairman of the Law Society's civil litigation committee: "Conditional fees are not the complete answer to every case - for example for the client who cannot pay the premium, or for the smaller firms that cannot afford the risk of running a case on that basis."

The cases currently being heard in the High Court, brought by almost 50 plaintiffs against a number of tobacco companies, are being run on a basis of conditional fees. Geraldine McCool, a partner at Leigh Day - the firm which is acting in those cases - comments: "Under these proposals, the question would have to be how many of these cases you could run on that basis. It is for the lawyers to assess the risk of running the case, and because such cases take a long time, with the lawyers being responsible for disbursements during the case - which will normally be what the client opts for - it means that the risk must be accurately assessed.

"As the lawyer is taking a risk in taking on such a case, they are also entitled to claim a success fee, usually 25 per cent of the costs," Ms McCool explains.

"The White Paper has brought in a provision that the success fee be recoverable from the losing side, which will give them the right to query the level of the success fees agreed between the lawyer and the winning party, that could lead to problems."

She adds that the other concern in this area is that such agreements are still relatively recent, and everyone is "still on a steep learning curve in this area. Clients have to be taken through the whole process, and also have to be told what their obligations are under the insurance policy, and to read the fine print. That is vital as there are a number of excluded categories of case where no insurance is available, such as where proceedings have already been issued, and that can mean that they cannot proceed with the case because they have no public funds, and no insurance cover."

And that restriction of options in going to law is also the argument put forward in relation to the Government's proposals to bring legal aid costs under control by having fixed-price contracts, under which lawyers will have to estimate the cost of taking a case under a set budget. It is estimated that the number of contracts likely to be awarded will be to between 25 per cent and 50 per cent of the existing 10,000 law firms providing such advice. With the Commission in the process of developing contracts for both civil and criminal legal service providers, lawyers and consumer bodies have expressed concern about restricting choice and the issue of quality.

Irwin Mitchell's Mr Napier says: "The criterion for the providers to be awarded a contract does focus on quality, which has to be a priority, but it must be quality of advice and service as well as systems. But limiting the numbers of providers cannot be right if consumers can't get access to quality legal services. Quality without access is not quality, and access without quality is not access."

From the consumers' point of view, Marlene Winfield, senior policy officer at the National Consumer Council says: "Contracting gives the consumer both an indication of quality and of who can provide a quality service, and who can do that in a particular field - consumers do not always have that guidance. And the person who does your conveyancing is not necessarily the best person to deal with your personal injury case. It offers more guidance on who to go to, and the more quality controls there are, particularly coupled with the Lord Chancellor's proposals on kite-marking for the Community Legal Service, the more that will help the process.

"But our concern is that the changes should ensure that there is adequate access to legal services - the number of contracted solicitors will be smaller than at present. There has to be a proper strategy to ensure that the necessary services are available everywhere, geographically and in all areas of law.

"In theory, the proposals sound fine. In practice, there is a lot of work which needs to be done. A careful balance needs to be struck between controlling the costs of legal aid (which is what is on the Government's agenda) and providing real access to justice."

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions