This is a curious publication for a law firm to produce. It is part report of an opinion survey among the profession conducted by Ipsos Mori; part advocacy of more spending on legal aid and court modernisation; part lament on the fast-changing practice of law; and part praise of better management. Basing a publication around a survey is more often associated with a lobbying body such as the Law Society than a leading legal aid firm. There are physical copies but you can read it online at: tinyurl.com/pqsv2be.
Surveys are a well-trodden lobbying tactic but have obvious limitations. Access to justice is objectively a lot worse than it was five years ago. I would be more impressed by details of exactly how this has occurred rather than reading that two-thirds of 500 legal professionals asserted this to be so. More surprisingly – and screaming for explanation – is how 1% of those surveyed could find that access to justice over this period is ‘much better’. Where have these five people been? Some 25 people – 5% of the total – disagreed with the accompanying proposition that ‘wealth is a more important factor in whether justice can be accessed than it used to be’. From this question, it would seem that even more of the participants have no clue about what is going on.
More valuable are the concrete calls for reform. Yes, legal aid should be expanded to include Dutch-style telephone/online access. Yes, a supplementary legal aid fund would be a good idea, as would ‘one-way cost-shifting’ for certain cases. Whether legal bills should be exempt from VAT is more arguable – certainly, the Ministry of Justice should stop the outrageous practice of including VAT in the legal aid spend.
Author: Hodge Jones & Allen
I may be biased. I have spent a lifetime devising legal aid policy, largely to be ignored by governments of all persuasions. The idea of virtual courts is interesting but the arguments for and against have more substance than the fact that a bare majority of polled practitioners (57%) think they are a good idea. Really? What about your rights under article 6 of the European Convention to a public hearing? What about the press’s right to be present and report? What about the accountability that follows from greater transparency and may be lost if hearings are not public? This is an idea – even if limited to ‘low-level’ civil and commercial cases – that needs a bit more exploration.
But I should not carp too much. The report is strong on the need for courts to innovate and go digital. It is strong too on the need for practices to innovate and improve their management. Indeed, the latter is one of the few glimmers of light – 57% of those surveyed are ‘not hopeful’ about the future of the profession and 69% would not recommend joining it. But, at least the Titanic is going down with the deckchairs better arranged: 74% think that their legal practices are better managed than five years ago. And only a party-pooping sceptic would note that 83% of the survey sample consisted of partners, managing partners and heads of chambers.
Roger Smith is visiting professor at London South Bank University and former director of human rights group Justice