The violent demonstrations of the ‘gilets jaunes’ in Paris are the latest manifestation of what we are told lay behind the Trump and Brexit victories, too – that the left-behind and just-managing don’t feel that they are being treated equitably, and that the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened unacceptably. This same fracture manifests itself clearly in our justice system.

Jonathan Goldsmith

Jonathan Goldsmith

On the one hand, we have the ‘Legal Services are GREAT’ campaign, where the government boasts to other countries that ‘Our legal services sector is one of the UK’s greatest exports and has supported trade and commerce around the world for generations. It’s worth £24 billion to the UK economy every year, and is at the heart of the UK’s future as a global, outward-looking, free-trading Britain.’ We know that foreign oligarchs and others from the globally wealthy happily use our courts for their business and family dealings. The Magic Circle law firms in London are booming. That is the rich side.

But what about the left-behind and just-managing in fly-over Britain? The reports on the dismal state of domestic justice for ordinary people, caused directly by the legal system being starved of government funds, are published on an almost daily basis. The most recent is the BBC’s report last weekend of legal aid advice deserts, which shows a precipitous drop in the number of legal aid claims. This is not news, but it is welcome that it is being repeated on a major outlet.

At last week’s Law Society Council meeting, we were given statistics on some aspects of where we are and how we got here. They are worth repeating.

The Ministry of Justice’s budget stood at £10.9 billion in 2010, £7.6 billion in 2017-2018, and will be at £6.38 billion over 2019-2020.

Spending on legal aid fell in real terms from £2.5 billion in 2010-2011 to £1.55 billion in 2016-2017. In 2000-2001, there were 803,828 early legal advice cases started under legal aid. In 2017-2018, that figure had dropped to … 140,341. The most severe drop was in family early legal advice cases, which has dropped by 90%.

The proportion of defendants in county and family court hearings not represented by a solicitor has obvious also risen. The BBC report noted that there has been a more than five-fold rise in people representing themselves in court generally.

On the criminal side, there are large chunks of the country – Wales and the South West in particular, but it doesn’t look good in the North, either – where well over half of criminal duty solicitors are over 50, and next to none are under 35. 

Regarding the courts, we were shown maps showing the distance to the nearest magistrates’ court, comparing 2010 to 2018. The darker the colour, the further the distance (by how the crow flies). In 2010, the map of England and Wales resembled a relatively healthy organ, with much of it light. Eight years later, it looked diseased, eaten away by large patches of darkness.

The New Statesman ran an article over the summer on ‘The quiet decline of English courts’, which highlighted the consequences for just one English town, Buxton in the Peak District. It tells a story which I am sure can be repeated up and down the country.

There used to be two courtrooms at Buxton’s High Peak Magistrates’ Court. Now cases are split between Stockport (18 miles away), and Chesterfield (25 miles away), although most of them go to Chesterfield, and sometimes even to Derby (35 miles away). The Buxton court was leased at a nominal rent from the local council, and so no money was made on the premises by the government on its closure.

But transport services have been cut as well. There is a rail service to Stockport, but none to Chesterfield or Derby. There is only one bus to Chesterfield which arrives in time for the first sitting, leaving at 7.30 am. Return tickets can cost as much as £20. The local Buxton paper rarely covers cases heard in Chesterfield or Derby.

The Gazette reported earlier in the year about a House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report, which highlighted the harm being done by abandoned court buildings now falling into dilapidation. For instance, it mentioned Wakefield Crown Court which ‘has been left to fall into ruins since it was sold, and which has required significant financial investment from Wakefield Council to rectify the situation’.

This tale of two countries, ultra-rich and well-invested for ‘Legal Services are GREAT’, and threadbare and barely functioning for the great majority of the country outside London, is extremely dangerous. We see the consequences of such divisions playing out in politics both here and all over the world. The government should take it as a most serious warning.