Law: Access to justice is not just a gimmick

Our Learned Friend

NO ONE can ignore the revolution happening in the civil justice system. The aim is to create a system that is cheaper, quicker and simpler than the current one, and to increase access to justice "for ordinary people". But, as the Access to Justice Bill of Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, moves through Parliament, there are signs that the reality may fall well short of this.

A whole package of reforms has been trailed and is now on the way. The court system is being redesigned following Lord Woolf's report on access to justice. In April, new court rules come into force marking the start of the biggest shake-up of the civil justice system in more than 100 years.

The way legal services are organised and delivered is also being changed. The legal aid system is to be replaced by two schemes run by a Legal Services Commission: the Community Legal Service and the Criminal Defence Service. Conditional fee agreements have been extended to nearly all areas of civil litigation, and will be updated to increase their uptake. Legal aid for personal injury cases looks likely to be scrapped as a consequence.

The Government's programme has a central theme: better targeting of how money is spent and meeting people's needs for legal services. Many of the changes are made in the Bill itself. But much of the important detail will follow in rules and guidance made by the Lord Chancellor and the various new bodies created by the Bill. This has caused some concern - eyebrows were raised at initial attempts to give the Lord Chancellor sweeping new powers.

And alarm bells started to ring when the Bill was considered in detail by the House of Lords - an attempt to promote equal access to justice had a frosty government reception. During the report stage of the Bill, a new clause - backed by a coalition of consumer and legal bodies - was introduced to protect access to the justice system for vulnerable people, such as the disabled.

That clause sets out the principle that legally aided consumers are placed on an equal footing before the law with privately paying clients. It also guarantees that, under the reformed legal aid system, individuals will not be discriminated against on the basis of disability or where they happen to live.

This new safeguard was adopted with a majority of 71 peers from all sides of the House. But the Government dismissed the proposal as a "gimmick" and now threatens to take out the clause when the Bill reaches the House of Commons.

When money is tight, tough decisions have to be made, but surely treating people equally before the law is a fundamental principle of justice. That has been central to the legal aid system since its birth more than 50 years ago. The Lord Chancellor has said that the present clause is self- contradictory and has conflicting objectives - but he has yet to propose a viable alternative.

This Bill is all about access to justice - but it has to live up to its title. If a principle in this Bill to protect the weak is a gimmick, then all legislation needs such gimmicks. Clear objectives have to be put into the law and the Lord Chancellor cannot escape his responsibility to ensure that high-quality legal services are provided, and on an equal footing.

Lord Irvine's initial reaction was that the clause is "quite unrealistic". If that is the Government's considered view, then the conclusion must be that from now on, those on legal aid can be expected to receive a second- class service.

Ashley Holmes is head of legal affairs at the Consumers Association

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Learning Support Assistant

£60 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Youth Support Workers Glouceste...

IT Technician - 1st Line

£19000 - £21000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPOR...

PPA Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Primary Teaching Jobs Available NOW-Southport

£80 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: **Due to an increase in dema...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London