RIP Access to Justice – April 2015

RIP Access to JusticeFiona Scurlock, MASS Regional Co-ordinator for the South East, and PI Solicitor at Gray Hooper Holt LLP, shares her view that the recent escalation in Court Fees is yet another nail in the coffin for our legal system

In the final year of my Law degree, scrabbling around for an easy module to boost my overall final mark, I happened upon a little attended course “The Soviet Legal System” (yes, it was that long ago) which had the gold-starred advantage of being the only open book exam on the whole degree course.  The rules stated (and I got this in writing from the tutor before signing up) that it was permitted to take into the exam one’s copy of “The Soviet Constitution” complete with the student’s own “notes or annotations” marked thereon.  One of the six essays I painstakingly transcribed in tiny, tiny writing onto the fly-leaf was along the lines of – whilst a state may have a peerless, all encompassing constitution enshrining rights, freedoms and principles, if in practice, the citizen has no access to it, then it isn’t worth a jot.

An obvious point, maybe, and one recognised as a fundamental principle as long ago as Magna Carta.  I have no idea what they teach in Britain’s most expensive public schools, but this jurisprudential point is clearly not on the curriculum.  I wouldn’t have thought it possible that in five short years the coalition government could so comprehensively bar access to justice in virtually every area of civil and criminal law.  The hastily rushed through hike in civil court fees, which came into force on 9th March, being the last grenade lobbed by the out-going Government into the carnage of the English legal system.  As well as the, now customary, failure to consult, the staggering level of the increase – over 600% in the highest value cases – is designed to fund the criminal court system.  Hang on, there was me thinking that a justice system is part of the infrastructure of a democratic state paid for out of centrally collected taxes, and not funded by a seriously injured claimant who now has to shell out thousands to exercise his/her right to claim compensation.  As well as presenting a serious bar to claimants themselves, the implications for personal injury solicitors and their already stretched disbursement funding arrangements, provide yet one more reason to wake in the middle of the night screaming “Why didn’t I go into IT?!”

Enter The Law Society on its white charger, leading a group of interested parties (including MASS) in an application for Judicial Review of the Government’s decision.  A pre-action protocol letter is duly despatched and Counsel’s advice is that there are good prospects to succeed on the failure to consult.  Imagine my surprise when, a mere seven days before the  deadline to issue the JR application, The Law Society charger pulls up, about turns and trots back to the stable.  In an article published online and bafflingly entitled “Keeping up the Fight”, TLS explains that it will continue to campaign and keep this issue on the agenda in the run up to the election.  Good luck with that, the only way this story will muscle its way onto the front pages is if we can air the fundamental arguments concerning access to justice on the back of a JR application.  At the very least, a win on the failure to consult point would ensure the matter is re-visited, by which time we may well be dealing with a different regime at the Ministry of Justice.  Worth a punt, surely?

So, another nail in the coffin of the civil legal system, now exclusively available to oligarchs in dispute with former business partners, and billionaires wanting a divorce.  Are there any places left on that mission to colonise the Moon? I’m packing my copy of “The Soviet Constitution”. We need to build a new legal system. This one’s dead.