We need your support in our fight for access to justice

Access to justice is on the verge of crisis. It saddens me that nearly 800 years after the Magna Carta was sealed, the Law Society needs to hold an Access to Justice Day.

There can be no effective rule of law when we lack a fully accessible and affordable legal system. It is against that backdrop – 600,000 people losing access to civil legal aid, the effects of the Jackson reforms and the ongoing threat to criminal legal aid – that today we are launching our ‘Access to Justice Campaign’.

By ‘campaign’, we mean an organised way to achieve a goal. We mean doing what lawyers do best: gathering evidence, presenting the facts, persuading. We will be focusing on three core goals and need the help of our members to achieve them.

First, we will raise public awareness of the legal help available to citizens to access justice. For some people, that means legal aid. It is telling that after 18 months of cuts on the civil side, only in the last few weeks has the Ministry of Justice quietly launched a test version of its Legal Aid Checker for people to see if they might be eligible. We came across the website quite by accident. We have repeatedly called for more effort in educating people as to where legal aid is still available, so we welcome this – albeit late – development. As part of our campaign, we have joined with the Legal Action Group and Legal Aid Practitioners Group to produce a poster and web page to help the public ascertain whether they might qualify for legal aid.

Access to justice goes beyond legal aid. Many of our members carry out pro bono work, from human rights work in far-flung corners of the globe through to law centres in their local communities. We are working with the Department for International Development to make sure our members’ efforts overseas are co-ordinated. We will be launching a survey to look at the policies, practices and organisation of pro bono within the profession, from global firms to high street solicitors. The overarching objective is for us to support our members providing this type of work and encourage an increase during my presidency.

Second, we will be seeking to persuade policymakers of the need to amend parts one and two of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. I set out my concerns with LASPO publicly to the Justice Select Committee and will be continuing – wherever possible – to highlight our efforts widely. We will be building a bank of high-quality research to demonstrate the access to justice impacts of LASPO. It will include publishing research analysing the impacts of the civil justice reforms. If you are contacted by our researchers, please do spend some time to help us gather this crucial evidence.

Third, we will be encouraging and supporting solicitors to make their products and services more accessible to clients. We can do that by standardising our products, by ensuring transparency around fees and by harnessing technology so that we are where our clients are – online. Depending on the client’s capabilities, that could be telephone hotlines, web-based portals and unbundling our services so that clients with limited resources can purchase at least some aspects of legal advice, such as employing a solicitor to draft documents. We will continue to provide advice and support to our members on how to provide some services differently and make their services more accessible to the public.

Whenever I speak to members and ask them why they chose a career in law, the overwhelming response is that they are passionate about justice. Whether they work in a corporate environment or are a sole practitioner, they share a common ideology. With that in mind, I hope that all of our members will support us in our fight for access to justice.

 Andrew Caplen is president of the Law Society