Leading Article: There is no justice in a legal system that is unaffordable

Click to follow
MODERNISATION IS an overused slogan of this Government. But irritation at its indiscriminate application should not distract us from areas where reform is urgently needed. And the law is one of the most antiquated of these. This is more than just a matter of quaint wigs and courtroom courtesies. At times of crisis or distress, access to justice can be just as vital as access to medicine. And there is widespread disquiet with the justice system. The reforms announced yesterday by the Lord Chancellor demonstrate that ministers do take the issues seriously. Maybe the fact that Mr Blair is a barrister and his wife a QC helps. But Lord Irvine will have to think more radically still to extend the benefit of his reforms to the bulk of us.

Ministers are right to tackle the manifest drawbacks of legal aid. As with much else in welfare, our current system costs a great deal (pounds 1,600m or so), but leaves a nagging doubt about whether it is actually delivering to those most in need. The new Community Legal Service offers the hope that people most in need will be able to get free advice, straightforwardly given.

However, concentration on access to justice for the very poor, important as this is, often pre-empts the much bigger, but less visible, problem of the high cost of justice for the many. A postman, say, will earn too much to qualify for legal aid, but is hardly ready to join the ranks of those rich enough to instruct libel lawyers to issue writs as a sort of recreational pursuit. The problem still persists of how to make the law affordable for the vast majority of the population.

Streamlining court procedures to cut costs will help, as do "no-win-no- fee" arrangements. But the bulk of any legal cost will comprise the fees of the lawyers. These can be extremely high. We should not complain about that - lawyers are as entitled to exact the best possible market rate for their labour as any of us. There is just one way in which one can dependably reduce the price of something - such as legal advice - when the demand for it is rising, and that is to increase the supply. Increasing the supply of lawyers is a perfectly plausible proposition. It is doubtful that the current supply of new entrants represents the maximum extent of the suitably able. Breaking down the solicitor-barrister divide is a welcome measure but, sadly, the Government has shown little more determination to tackle deregulation than did Mrs Thatcher (another lawyer) when she was fought off in the mid-1980s. The whiff of restrictive practice still hangs about the Bar Council and the Law Society.

Lord Irvine would like to be remembered less for expensive wallpaper than as a great reforming Lord Chancellor. He needs to be more radical, but he has made a start on ensuring history returns a favourable verdict.