Reforms to the criminal justice system may have dominated Michael Gove’s speech on 23 June, his first since he became Justice Secretary, but there were also elements relevant to civil law. His commitment that “there is a responsibility on government to make sure that those in the greatest hardship – at times of real need – are provided with the resources to secure access to justice” was welcome. But his definitions of “greatest hardship”/“real need” may be queried by many claimants who are dissuaded from bringing legal claims on financial grounds. Access to justice is about equal access to the legal system and to deny someone legal assistance in seeking justice is to deny them equality before the law. The growing numbers of litigants-in-person is indicative of the challenge ahead.
Access to justice is not just a convenient slogan for solicitors to hide behind. It is an unbreakable principle at the core of our justice system, not a price tag. In that vein, we will be pushing the MoJ to conduct a statutory review of the RTA fixed costs regime to ensure claims within the fast track (up to £25,000) are receiving full access to justice, and will continue to argue passionately that those with claims of lower value must still have access to professional legal advice.
His wider vision of a more technologically efficient, less complex and bureaucratic civil justice system will, in principle, be welcomed by most claimant solicitors working in RTA, familiar with the Claims Portal and now MedCo, despite its well documented early problems. Efficiencies that equally benefit claimants and defendants are to be welcomed.
There are of course many other important issues that we hope Mr Gove will turn to in the months ahead. Insurers’ current focus seems to be on noise-induced hearing loss claims, but they must not be allowed to forget their commitment to cease making pre-medical offers ahead of independent legal advice, and must also end the practice of third party capture. Mr Gove built a reputation in the education sector for not shying away from taking on vested interests. We hope that the Secretary of State will adopt the same approach with the worst elements of the insurance industry.