Keeping up the fight
The Law Society’s relentless lobbying over civil court fee rises and related justice issues has paid dividends. But following counsel’s advice a judicial review bid has been ruled out.
Political campaigning has certainly stepped up a few gears since parliament dissolved less than two weeks ago.
MPs have returned to their constituencies and commenced canvassing, the first televised leaders’ debate has been broadcast and the results of various opinion polls seem to be published on an ever-increasing basis. It is clearly going to be a hard-fought election campaign.
There have been various statements from the main political parties on various aspects of their justice policies, one being in relation to civil court fees. Earlier this year the Law Society did, of course, lead a coalition of partners - the Bar Council, Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, Forum of Insurance Lawyers, Motor Accident Solicitors Society, Action Against Medical Accidents, Chancery Bar Association and Commercial Bar Association - in a campaign against fee increases of 600% in some civil cases.
We did all we could to raise the profile of the issue, securing extensive media interest including a comment piece published by the Daily Telegraph, a letter printed in The Times and an interview on Sky News. It also made BBC Radio 4’s Today programme with Lord Pannick QC highlighting the Law Society’s concerns. We also supported solicitors in lobbying their MPs and undertaking local media interviews. Many provided case studies which showed what a serious issue this is for those seeking to access justice.
They were of great assistance in raising the profile of this important issue.
At the end of February, with the support of other legal representative bodies, we issued a pre-action protocol letter to the government. Our view was - and is - that the increases amounted to a ‘flat tax’, going far beyond recovering the true costs of administering claims through the courts. The letter was a signal that we were considering court action.
We recently received advice from our counsel. Having carefully considered that advice we have decided not to take the next step of seeking a judicial review. But that does not mean we are giving up. Far from it. Our relentless lobbying has led to Labour and the Liberal Democrats stating that they will review the court fee increases if they are part of a new government.
Further, officials at the Ministry of Justice were instructed, shortly before parliament was dissolved, to keep the situation under review. We will continue to closely monitor the impact of these fees on people and businesses endeavouring to seek redress through the civil courts.
We have also been continuing to press wider civil justice issues. For example, we have consistently warned the government of the dangers of its civil legal aid policies. In March the justice select committee called for an urgent review of the changes made to civil legal aid - we will be lobbying for this to take place early in the new parliament. What has transpired surely goes far beyond what was originally intended.
Notwithstanding the fact that parliament has been dissolved, there exists a tremendous opportunity for all of us to question - and challenge - our local candidates on their policies for justice. Our general election manifesto provides a number of realistic and balanced proposals for reform in three sections: (i) making society a fairer place; (ii) strengthening the UK’s global standing; and (iii) boosting the UK economy. This, and a campaign pack, are available on our website.
The NHS, education, immigration and the deficit may dominate wider political campaigning. But now is surely the time for all of us to remind parliamentary candidates - and the wider population - of the devastating impact that recent changes, which make it even more difficult for ordinary people to access justice, are having upon this country.
Andrew Caplen is Law Society president