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The hidden crisis in Britain's courts

Access to justice is in grave danger, warns Ian Lucas.

Unseen, there is a crisis in our court system. More and more court users act alone. They are not advised by solicitors and attend courts unrepresented. They are not dealing with straightforward issues. The welfare of children, the division of family assets, the liberty of the individual are all being dealt with by parties who have heard no independent, expert advice.

Deepening cuts to legal aid ensure that much of this vital advice is only now available to those who can afford to pay for it. Often those without the means to pay are also those who are most vulnerable and in need of guidance. In a country where our legal system is historically known as being one of the best in the world, this should frighten us all.

On the front line dealing with the crisis are judges, court clerks and magistrates who find themselves in court with a dual, contradictory role. On the one hand, they are the decision makers, tasked with making the final judgment. On the other, they are in reality called on to attempt to impartially advise parties who do not understand the complex, alien process they have to work through.

The courts struggle on but, as time passes, the problem worsens. Pressure builds on the people who work in the justice system, from judges to court office staff and the situation is deteriorating. Courts sit later, lists are longer and justice suffers. Ultimately, wrong calls will be made by tired, pressured staff. More appeals will take place, at great emotional and financial cost to all concerned, and confidence in the system will diminish.

When cuts are made, the courts are easy prey. No-one sympathises with lawyers, always perceived as overpaid and capable of further belt-tightening. But those who suffer most are the court users, who would not be at court in the first place if they did not have a serious issue to resolve. They will wait longer, without advice unless they are rich, and be on the end of bad decisions because the courts may not have the information they need to make just ones.

At the beginning of a Parliament with a new Lord Chancellor, we need a reality check. The courts are under extreme pressure. The situation is getting worse. We need to act to address it - urgently.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.

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My son is shivering – precisely the response you want from a boy newly excited by drama

I can only assume theatre is in his blood, but not from my side of the family.

I went to the National Theatre last week to see, not a full production, but a reading of a play – Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out!, directed by, and starring, the writer himself. The pre-publicity described the play as a “big, bold and riotous look at gender, drag and fabulousness”, in which “the House of Light competes with the House of Diabolique for drag family supremacy at the Cinderella Ball”. It lived up to this thrilling billing, transcending the modest expectations of a “read-through” and bursting into vivid life on the stage. The audience, less subdued, less thoroughly straight and white than a standard West End theatre crowd, rose to the occasion, whooping their approval and leaping to their feet at the end in a genuinely rousing and moved ovation.

It was a great evening, and came hot on the heels of another success only two weeks ago, when Ben and I took our youngest to see Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. The boy is only 16, and freshly into drama, so it felt risky taking him to a new play. But we needn’t have worried. The piece is visceral and physical, set in County Armagh in 1981; against the backdrop of the hunger strikes, it tells a story of the long reach of the IRA, and even though the boy needs some of the history explaining to him, when I turn to him at the end of the final, shocking scene, he says: “I am actually shivering.” Which is presumably the precise response you would want to get out of a 16-year-old boy, poised on the brink of being excited about drama.

But theatre isn’t always exciting, is it? Let’s be honest. Ben and I have slunk out of too many intervals, bored witless by something flat and stagey, so I chalk these two latest experiences up as something of a triumph.

I didn’t even know the boy was so into theatre until I saw him on stage this year in a school production of Enron. He only had a small part, but still had to come to the very front of the stage, alone in a spotlight, and deliver a monologue in a Texan accent. And seeing him out of context like this, I nearly fell off my seat with the jolt of dislocation, almost not recognising him as my own son. Who knew he could do a Texan accent? (He’d practised for hours in the bathroom, he told me later.) And when did he get so tall? And so handsome? I see him every day and yet all I could think, seeing him up there on stage, was: “Who on earth IS this lanky six footer with the Hollywood smile, making eye contact and connecting with the audience in a way I never could in 20 years of gigs?”

I can only assume it is in his blood, and has come from Ben’s side of the family. Ben was studying drama at Hull when I met him; indeed the first time I saw him with his clothes off was on stage, in a production of The Winter’s Tale where the director, somewhat sadistically I thought, lined up a chorus of young men to be dancing satyrs, and made them strip down to nothing but giant codpieces. We’d only just started dating, so it was quite the introduction to my new boyfriend’s body.

Theatre was in his blood, too, inherited from his mother, and he was always confident on stage, enjoying the presence and feedback of an audience, which is why he still plays live and I don’t. His mother had been an actress, performing with John Gielgud and co at the Memorial Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon, until her career was cut short by having a child, and then triplets. At her funeral a couple of years ago we listened to a recording of her RADA audition from the 1940s, in which she performed one of Lady Macbeth’s speeches, her cut-glass English tones, declamatory and dramatic, in many ways every bit as fabulous and flamboyant as the drag queens in Wig Out!, whose theatricality she would have adored. She loved the stage, and she loved fame, and when it couldn’t be hers she revelled instead in mine and Ben’s, keeping every press cutting, wearing all the T-shirts, coming to every back-stage party. If it couldn’t be the spotlight, then the wings would do, darling.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder