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  1. Politics
3 November 2015

The hidden crisis in Britain’s courts

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

By 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.

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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.