I've been reporting on access to justice for some while and I don't recall the spotlight shining as brightly as it is currently on the importance of ensuring access applies to everyone. Much of the credit should go to the Bach Commission, which last month published a formidable report on the right to justice following a two-year review.
Subsequent coverage rightly focused on the commission's proposed Right to Justice Act and calls for legal aid to be reinstated in areas such as social welfare law.
However, one aspect of the report that was largely overlooked is the dire state of public legal education. A senior Crown prosecutor told the commission about a minicab driver who had been accused of taxi touting. He had a strong defence, 'but the duty rep at the police station told him to take the caution for taxi touting to get him in and out. It meant that he automatically lost his cab licence due to the Transport for London zero tolerance policy'.
Consider how different that minicab driver's life might look today had he properly understood his rights. A few paragraphs on, I was encouraged to learn that school pupils learn about the role of law and justice as part of a 'citizenship' subject in the national curriculum. I was less happy to learn that the number of trainee citizenship teachers has significantly fallen, Ofsted is no longer required to inspect citizenship as a subject, and independent schools don't even have to teach the national curriculum.
Credit must be given to Robert Buckland, the solicitor general, for recognising the importance of public legal education, with the establishment of a panel to help teach people about the law, and their basic civil and criminal rights. 'Our aims are bold,' Buckland told the Gazette, suggesting that innovative thinking is required. 'It's not just about lawyers walking into schools. It's about the use of technology and spreading information.'
However, I'd suggest there are surprisingly simple ways to provide public legal education.
Last month, the Royal Courts of Justice opened its doors as part of an annual 'Open House London' event. After a half-hour wait, I was able to cram into court 15 and take part in a historical murder trial, organised by the National Justice Museum. I couldn't quite bring myself to get in a rather long line to try on judges' robes, but was glad to queue for another half an hour to tour the cells and prison vans. If only I had a camera to take a selfie of me being handcuffed and locked in a prison van. It was brilliant.
Everyone who attended the open day left the grade 1 listed building more knowledgeable about, and fascinated by, how the justice system works. Why not make this a regular event?