The Methodist Central Hall in London was, in some ways, rather an appropriate venue for the Civil Justice Council (CJC) to hold its 7th national forum on access to justice on Friday. I was brought up a generic non-conformist. The Methodists seemed uncertain – even to a teenage member – whether they were heirs to the great dissenting tradition or part of the Established church. As a result of hours in services at an impressionable age, I can, for example, still recite long tracts of the Book of Common Prayer, the great totem of the Church of England. The conference raised similar ambiguities over the CJC. Its website announces that its ‘primary role … is to advise the Lord Chancellor, the Judiciary and the Civil Procedure Rule Committee on civil matters’. However, by its conference, the CJC’s litigants in person working party was asserting a leadership in the development of policy in access to justice – a rather wider brief.
Let me be clear. Pointing out this ambiguity is not a criticism. Far from it. You cannot sensibly consider the needs of litigants in person without considering the advice, information and other sources of potential assistance available to them. What is more, the abolition of the Legal Services Commission has left legal aid and advice without any independent administration out of the Ministry of Justice (outrageous when decisions are made about funding cases against government); any advocate other than ministers (God help us) for legal aid within government; and any lead body capable of bringing together the various providers of service of the kind once exemplified by the Regional Legal Services Committees run by the Commission.
No other existing organisation than the CJC could have brought together the broad range of attendees; acted on as broad a statement of aims: ‘To engage and make connections with others addressing access to justice for those without means, in order to use these channels better; To update and share new learning; to enable challenge and to identify opportunities; To look together at what next, and to share vision for the longer term’; or delivered as broad a conference with as wide a range of speakers – from the relevant minister, Lucy Fraser, and the Master of the Rolls through a range of different practitioners, administrators and academics.
And special mention should be made of one unlikely innovation made by those organising the conference. An early session had speakers from Northern Ireland (which, in legal aid terms, retains the old English system), Wales (which has a Commission on Justice to develop a new approach different from England) and Scotland (where access to justice and legal aid has been defiantly enhanced rather than cut and has notably gone in a different direction from England). This sort of recognition by English institutions of the value of looking to the other parts of the UK (which implies also some notion of the UK as a federal state made up of more equal members than England usually acknowledges) is startlingly uncommon. Good for the CJC for such a touch of subversion and nod to the future.
Thus, the problem with the conference was not its content or its conception. The difficulty was the lack of a continuing infrastructure to support a lead body vigorously to take things forward afterwards. In some countries, this role might be taken by an access to justice commission (often with a judicial head). In others, it is the legal aid provider – which has the advantage of being a body with a budget. In England and Wales, we desperately need some reincarnation of the Legal Services Commission/Legal Aid Board appearing to be sufficiently different for politicians not to be required to admit their error in abolishing the original but with a similar commitment to a wide access to justice remit. Northern Ireland and Scotland have kept their independent legal aid bodies: Wales may argue for one. England is being shown up.
Technology only enhances the difficulties. The court modernisation programme will move tribunals and the small claims procedure online. Simultaneously, legal aid cuts have removed much legal aid and local authority cuts are reducing much advice provision. Some institution has to take a lead in a coherent digital approach to access to justice. We need an organised structure with national advice sites (or the portals into which they might develop) like http://advicenow.com or https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk as the first line of call; specialist or more local sites as follow up; then a jurisdiction-wide coherent network of advice centres and legal assistance capable of helping people to seek solutions to their problems which will increasingly be digital in process and helped by national policy and funding to do so. Under our current arrangements, it is impossible to see what body could do that. It goes beyond Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service, on the one hand, or the emasculated Legal Aid Agency within the Ministry of Justice on the other.
In the meantime, thank God for the Civil Justice Council. Its Litigants in Person working party has stepped into the breach – to the extent of exposing the CJC to the kind of ambiguities familiar to Methodists. And no harm – and a lot of benefit perhaps – to that. The language of the Book of Common Prayer is, after all, one of the glories of our culture and true dissenters miss that.