The justice system must adapt to ensure people can access it without lawyers, the lord chief justice has said.

In a speech given in New Zealand last week and published by the Judicial Office yesterday, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd alluded to the ’reality that lawyers are too expensive for many people, notwithstanding attempts to open up the legal services marketplace’.

It was ‘important to remind lawyers at times that the justice system is not there for them (although they unquestionably play an important part) but for the public’, he added.

Thomas also advocated online courts and remote hearings to resolve smaller disputes, which he said are becoming more likely.

‘If this is feasible, and the work being done suggests that it is, then we can move away from the provision of the much beloved local court and its specially designed features for the majority of small cases,’ he said.

‘Even where cases require court hearings, we are also questioning whether we really need to maintain the number of designated local court houses.

‘Can we not use ordinary rooms in public buildings to maintain local justice, and access to that local justice, whilst reserving the use of permanent, purpose built court buildings to larger towns and cities?’

Thomas said it was necessary to ‘re-cast our justice system’ to equip it for the present, and to future-proof it so far as possible.

This work should include stabilising its financing, making effective use of its buildings, allocating work appropriately, and exploiting the advantages that technology and digitisation.

Thomas said the idea of an ombudsman system for resolving disputes in different business sectors was attractive to some but presented serious issues.

The key problem, he saw, was that proceedings of regulators or ombudsmen are not in public, and that a key fact of justice is that it should be open.

Any proper resolution should be by an independent decision-maker and not someone subject to ‘regulatory capture’, he added.

‘Without the courts and tribunals, through their decisions clarifying and developing the law, the ability of any private dispute resolution mechanism to operate is lost.

‘Such systems depend upon the shadow of the law if they are to operate effectively.’

He also used his speech to warn that the scale of court fees, together with the cost of legal assistance, is putting justice out of the reach and imperiling a core principle of Magna Carta.