Since supply chains are in the news, it is worth remembering that the administration of justice is suffering from its own severe supply shortages. Access to legal services is in a disastrous state, arguably as bad as, or even worse than, the long queues waiting to fill up with petrol or the photos of empty supermarket shelves. Its desperate state has been recognised for some time.
The Law Society published data last week which showed huge civil legal aid deserts across the country, with clients unable to find a solicitor to help them or having to travel long distances to find one.
One example, and not the worst, is that the number of offices providing legal help and controlled legal representation in family cases has halved in the last 10 years. At the same time, the backlog in the family courts, the equivalent of petrol queues, has practically doubled over the period of the pandemic, now standing at over 100,000 in private and public law cases.
To continue with queues and backlogs, the number of criminal cases awaiting resolution in the courts had been steadily climbing even before the pandemic. In early 2019, the backlog figures in the Crown Court stood at 33,290. By the time of the first lockdown, this had grown to 41,045. They have now nearly doubled since the beginning of 2019, with the latest figures showing a backlog of 60,692 outstanding cases. And the proportion of cases outstanding for more than a year has increased from 11% last year to 19% this year.
The chair of the Criminal Bar Association said that there is an increasing number of cases where no barrister can be found because the profession is already so severely overstretched and depleted in numbers.
Should we call in the Army as with the fuel supply problem, after giving soldiers training to provide legal advice in rural areas? Should we increase the number of visas for foreign judges and lawyers to come and help us with our shortages, as with the food industry? You can come up with your own excellent answers.
Unfortunately, there are no sensational photos which can be shown for our problems, and so no similarly dramatic solutions are offered to us.
The one relief to this very bleak picture is that it is a problem which cannot be blamed on Brexit. Therefore, we do not have one side saying ‘I told you so’, and the other that ‘This was always predicted in our transition to a higher wage economy’.
The absence of Brexit is a shame in some ways. If our shortages could be blamed on the B-word and the previous supply of cheap foreign labour, the government would doubtless readily agree that the way to resolve our problems would be for legal services to transition to higher wages - evidently not in the City or on the commercial side, but in the sector which provides access to justice for ordinary people, in other words legal aid. But of course that would result in the government having to pay higher legal aid rates, and not just preaching to the private sector to do the same.
Our queues have been caused by cutting public resources, and can be resolved by putting those resources back in the system. Civil legal aid spending nearly halved (-46%) in real terms between 2010/11 and 2015/16. The Ministry of Justice took some of the biggest hits to its budget across Whitehall during the austerity years. It is widely accepted that the LASPO reforms resulted in many solicitors being forced to abandon legal aid work.
But there is no indication that this is the government’s long-term solution. In August, it launched a major call for evidence seeking views on the best ways to settle family, business and other civil disputes away from the court room. This is almost certainly a code for saying ‘without lawyers’ or ‘with fewer lawyers’.
As for our regulators, I despair. The Legal Services Board, in its report last year on the state of legal services, recited the crisis in supply described above, and saw competition and the empowering of consumers as its only solution, while admitting that market forces alone could not resolve the problem.
Bang on cue, while access to justice has become a disaster for so many, it has opened a consultation on empowering consumers through specific expectations for regulators related to public legal education, and information about price, quality and service.
I notice that no-one suggests to car owners or food shoppers that their supply problems would improve if they only knew more about the price and quality of the fuel or food they are waiting to buy.
As ever, access to legal services is the Cinderella of our national scene, abandoned in the scullery.
Jonathan Goldsmith is Law Society Council member for EU matters and a former secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe. All views expressed are personal and are not made in his capacity as a Law Society Council member, nor on behalf of the Law Society