The Law Society’s new green paper on reforming civil justice
Fiona Rutherford shares her views on the Law Society’s new green paper ‘Proposals for a 21st Century Justice System’ and how the proposed reforms relate to the work carried out by JUSTICE
A strong civil justice system turns abstract rights into concrete ways to protect everyone’s freedom, dignity and equality. As such, civil justice is vital to a properly functioning democracy. All too often, our current system fails to live up to this, however. One in twenty people in England and Wales have an unmet legal need involving a dispute, for example, and one in ten people with a contentious legal issue report having had to move or lose their home as a result. Minority groups and those on low incomes bear the brunt of these failures.
Digitisation done right is essential for a modern, efficient system, as this work recognises. But digitisation done badly decreases the chance of rights being vindicated by adding more tunnels and dead ends to an already bewildering maze. Results from previous justice digitisation programmes have been decidedly mixed; through a lack of people-led design, some reforms have simply added stress and delays.
The Law Society’s proposed reforms
It is good, therefore, to see the Law Society join growing calls for practical, big-picture ways to improve this system and make it fit for the future. First, it is brilliant to see proposals informed by direct conversations with the people the justice system is built to serve, asking them what they need from reforms.
Emphasis on the need for an easily accessed, easily understood, trusted service to explain people’s legal rights, responsibilities and options is spot on. JUSTICE has long called for joined up work to ensure we all understand our rights and the legal avenues open to us.
Such is the complexity of the current system that even searching for the correct entry point can discourage people. Our work on housing disputes, for example, echoes the paper’s concerns around a fractured legal landscape, with tenants struggling to navigate a bewildering array of schemes, ombudsmen and tribunals.
It is, therefore, very welcome to see the Law Society adding their weight to emerging consensus on the need for a trusted ‘one stop shop’ entry point for people needing legal advice. JUSTICE has previously called for an integrated service providing accessible legal information, advice and assistance. A similar call for an initial ‘online triage process’ was echoed by Lord Justice Briggs’ review of the civil courts in 2016.
Since JUSTICE is also currently researching the opportunities and risks of using artificial intelligence (AI) in the justice system, I await the project’s future work on AI and big data with particular interest.
There are two areas in this green paper where careful further thinking will be vital, however. First, collating existing resources from organisations, such as AdviceNow makes sense, but many gaps will remain. Producing truly accessible, comprehensive, up-to-date information covering the civil justice system is essential if any ‘one-stop-shop’ is to work – but doing so is a huge challenge.
It will require centring people’s needs – their language and reading abilities, time resources, background knowledge (or lack thereof) and so on – at every single stage, and in ways that the legal profession, public bodies and policy makers have not always managed to do well. It is encouraging, therefore, to see recognition of the need to co-design any new service very closely with the people who will rely on it.
Second, without suitable support, digitisation risks excluding some people altogether. JUSTICE research shows that age, homelessness, geography and detention are all factors that can prevent people accessing online justice services. To tackle digital exclusion, we recommended locating technical support services in ‘trusted spaces’, such as community organisations and libraries (among other measures).
The green paper recognises this issue, and I support its mention of co-locating legal support alongside health and welfare services. Hammering out further detail on how to ensure any new digital service is accessible to digitally excluded groups will be key, however. Otherwise, we risk barring some of those who already face the steepest battles to get their rights recognised.
In short, much further work is needed to head off any devils in the detail – as is often the case when advocating wide-ranging reforms. The Law Society are a key voice, so it is especially welcome to see them joining calls for genuinely accessible options for those needing legal help. Overall, the paper is an important intervention, I look forward to seeing it developed.
Fiona Rutherford is chief executive of JUSTICE and is a member of the Project Advisory Group for the Law Society’s new green paper ‘Proposals for a 21st Century Justice System’