Shine A Light

Why access to Justice is not yet an election issue and must be debated

The evidence suggests that people care about access to justice. Politicians should listen to the people.

Robin Murray .
21 April 2015

A still from 'Legal Aid Team', raising awareness of the attack on justice

The people have signalled in the clearest terms (89 per cent) that access to Justice and a fair trial are important issues. See the recent poll published in the Guardian by respected ‘YouGov’ which makes that very clear.

This evidence destroys the clichéd myth that people do not care until they themselves need a legal aid lawyer. In fact the people of this country are fundamentally decent and are increasingly becoming alarmed at the damage being done to our internationally renowned legal system. They have been slow to register concern on this before partly because the health service occupies the headlines for understandable reasons. (Although interestingly 84 per cent of people said legal aid and a fair trial are a British fundamental right compared to an 82 per cent rating for health care at the point of use.)

So what has happened to produce this growing shift in awareness and increase in concern over access to justice?

Perhaps the shift is encouraged by the huge publicity leading up to the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in June, reminding people who they were and where they had come from. All of us who live here owe a debt to those in our history who fought for the principles of Magna Carta down through the centuries and especially to the post war generation of politicians who, having saved liberty during the war and despite the nation suffering from post war austerity, introduced legal aid to give effect to Magna Carta and the right to a fair trial for all not just the wealthy.

The anniversary coincided with a rise in media reporting on the plight of those for whom the nightmare of having to represent themselves in person in court became a horrible reality.

So why (with a tiny exception here and there) is this political generation so neglectful of access to Justice that it has not featured at all in the general election?

It is quite simple. Politicians are much slower to catch up with public social attitudes than you think. In crude terms as access to justice has never before featured in past campaigns then they conclude it cannot be important so they do not focus upon it.

Well, they are wrong and out of touch as YouGov and other polls reveal. Politicians will tell you that it does not feature ‘on the doorstep’.  I have been a parliamentary candidate for a major party and a Borough councillor, so have done my fair share of ‘knocking on doors’ during canvassing at elections. Firstly these are not ‘listening’ exercises at all. (The odd issue will be passed back usually to the local Councillors). They are partly information gathering for Election Day, partly getting across the party message not the reverse.

And that is the point. The parties have a pre-determined message to get across. They will talk up their own side and talk down rivals but in terms of policy debate this will be cut very short and be rapidly brought around to key ‘plus’ policy areas. This at the moment will not include access to Justice. So there is a self-perpetuating gridlock on issues discussed. The politicians will tell you that access to justice is rarely raised on the doorstep but they are the reason why that is the case.

The politicians will steer the brief discussion according to the limited national and local party script giving no time to allow discussion develop away from those gridlines. They will not discuss the issue so they report back that people do not care about it. They do not talk about it so the press are unable to report their views. But it is not true. People do care and increasingly so. The reason being (apart from this overwhelming poll evidence that they do) is that increasingly the hardships suffered by people they know are making an impact.

There is real injustice out there due to lack of legal aid and people do not like that. This feeling of injustice will gather in strength as the effect of cuts to legal aid gather pace. It will grow rapidly with huge issue fees imposed on civil court claims preventing people seeking Justice. It will become louder still as people realise the deterrent to the innocent defending themselves that the new vast court costs represent (up to £1200) with the risk of financial hardship to them and their families should the court get it wrong. This we know from reports is happening.

So we need to make a stand and insist that the politicians wake up to peoples growing concern about the present assault upon the people’s right to a fair trial and justice and force this issue into the election debate.  

That is why everyone should support the Vote for Justice rally on Thursday 23rd April at 2 pm at Westminster Central Hall, London. The many speakers include Sir Alan Moses, recently retired from the Court of Appeal, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC one of Britain's most distinguished lawyers and Shami Chakrabarti CBE, the well-known director of Liberty plus Ian Lawrence, Assistant General Secretary with the Probation and Family Court Union (NAPO) and many more. Join us and book here to make sure legal aid and justice are not the forgotten issues. 89 per cent of us have made clear its importance so let us give voice loudly and plainly to the people’s concerns. 

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