Leading Article: Access to justice for those who need it

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The Independent Culture
A CIVILISED society governed by the rule of law is impossible without law being available to all. That is why the current spat between Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, and the Law Society, the solicitors' governing body, is more than an amusing side-show. The immediate cause of the row is a set of advertisements in national newspapers. The Law Society suggests that the Access to Justice Bill will restrict legal aid for victims of negligent employers, domestic violence, housing disrepair and police discrimination. The Lord Chancellor is so infuriated that he has asked the Law Society to remove the advertisements. That is going too far. The Law Society should be allowed to express its opinion.

But he is right to press ahead with his wider campaign to reform legal aid. The Bill attempts to tackle the increase in the cost of legal aid by differentiating between help for criminal and civil cases. People accused of a crime will still be entitled to legal aid after means tests. This will not be true of litigants in civil cases unless they are involved in either a family law case or a personal injury case.

Vexatious litigants should not expect taxpayers to fund their obsession. By encouraging the development of "no win, no fee" arrangements for civil matters, the Government forces solicitors to take a hard look at a case before taking it on and using up the precious time of the courts.

If the Bill is enacted, it will be operating in an altered legal environment. As of this week the recommendations of the Woolf Report will be introducing the biggest changes to the civil legal system in a generation. Through fines and the removal of legal obscurities, the new procedures encourage litigants and solicitors to settle cases as speedily as possible. The less time and money that is wasted on trivial cases, the more money will be available for ensuring that everyone who needs access to justice gets it.