On Friday 30th of November 2012, the UK Civil Justice Council (CJC) conducted a national forum to consider how to safeguard access to justice for the many people who will, following the impending Legal Aid cuts in April 2013, have to represent themselves in civil litigation.
The forum follows a 2011 CJC Working Group Report on access to justice for Self-Represented Litigants (SRLs, or ‘Litigants in Person’). The Report made various recommendations to the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice in the light of the proposed reductions in Legal Aid. The national gathering was intended in part to assess the implementation of the recommendations of that report thus far.
Based on a framework of principle posited by Lord Woolf in his 1996 review of access to justice, the CJC Report is an excellent read for anyone concerned with the challenge of protecting the values that underpin our system of justice in the light of the forthcoming cuts. The Report proposes a series of cost-limited measures which can be taken to reduce the impact on SRLs of having to navigate a system designed for lawyers largely on their own. Although many of the recommendations were in the process of being implemented, such as the production of guides for SRLs, it was clear that there was still much work to be done.
The forum brought together representatives from front-line advice agencies, regulators, practicing lawyers, law students and members of the judiciary. Key aims of the meeting were to propose and evaluate practical steps which could be taken without material additional financial resources over the next six months to prepare for the funding cuts and the anticipated substantial increase in number of SRLs.
Delegates offered various solutions to the monumental challenges facing SRLs which could be introduced before April. They were concerned to ensure greater co-ordination between the bodies which provide assistance to SRLs and to provide reliable advice as early as possible. Many members of the judiciary aimed to take a leading role in ensuring the accessibility of the court system, while recognising the invaluable work of pro bono units and those who offer affordable legal advice to people with limited resources.
Amongst those present were Lord McNally, Minister of State for Justice, Lord Dyson MR, Chairman of the Civil Justice Council, and Lord Neuberger, incumbent President of the Supreme Court. Each gave a short speech acknowledging the importance of the cause at hand. The scale of the problem, obvious to those working on the front-line, became very clear to all present through the discussion of experience and exchange of ideas. The day was discernibly about more than just words; there was a sincere aspiration and focus on making sure that the event generated suggestions that could be of real practical utility going forward.
Chairman of the CJC Working Group, Robin Knowles CBE QC, who organized the event, summarised the rationale for the forum as the hope that, through co-ordination and leadership, the sum of the efforts made would be greater than their individual parts in promoting access to justice for SRLs. The event felt like an important and insightful step in the endeavour, in light of the impending cuts, to safeguard the interests of all litigants, regardless of socio-economic status, within our civil justice system.