A survey commissioned by the profession's major representative bodies to understand what the public thinks about justice shows that an overwhelming majority think it is as important as health or education. However, the survey also highlights a widespread belief that the justice system is tilted in favour of the wealthy.
The findings of the survey were released ahead of the first Justice Week, a national series of events organised by the Law Society, Bar Council and Chartered Institute for Legal Executives, which begins on Monday.
According to the survey of 2,086 people, more than three-quarters agreed that justice is as important as health of education. A similar figure agreed that people on low incomes should be able to get free legal advice. Nearly two-thirds of respondents would feel uncomfortable dealing with the law and legal processes themselves if they were accused of a crime which could result in a custodial sentence. Only 13% think the state should not have to pay for people's legal expenses if they are accused of an offence that could land them in prison.
For all types of legal issues listed in the survey, at least half of respondents said they would feel uncomfortable dealing with them without a lawyer. Six in 10 believe people on low incomes are more likely than wealthy people to be convicted of crimes.
Law Society president Christina Blacklaws said: 'Cuts to legal aid spending over the past five years have denied justice to the most vulnerable in society, placed a further burden on the taxpayer and damaged the foundation of our justice system. Since April 2013, hundreds of thousands of people have become ineligible for legal aid as a result of freezes to means tests as well as cuts to the scope of legal aid, including victims of domestic abuse and people under threat of eviction.'
Andrew Walker QC, chair of the bar, said there was 'now a gulf between what people expect from our justice system, and what they are getting. We do not leave the ill to treat themselves without expert medical help, so nor should we expect people to deal with legal problems and disputes without expert legal help if they cannot afford it'.
CILEx president Philip Sherwood said the perception that the system is tilted in favour of the wealthy may not be surprising 'but it is extremely dangerous and undermines the rule of law'.
The representative bodies united to create Justice Week as a way of placing justice and the rule of law at the centre stage of public and political discussion.