On the anniversary of the Grenfell fire we are republishing the below blog which sets out our concerns about the general lack of legal funding in the UK. This lack of funding no doubt played a part in this terrible tragedy and urgent change is required
‘Access Denied: Why justice is only available to the few and not the many’
Can you feel anything other than sadness and anger at the Grenfell fire? I can’t, I’m livid. Yet again the failings and short cuts of the powerful have had devastating consequences on the vulnerable. This tragedy was entirely avoidable but residents’ repeated warnings and protestations were ignored because they were poor, therefore those in charge did not think it was important or necessary to listen. And, because of cuts to Legal Aid, they weren’t made to.
The heart-breaking account of Pilgrim Tucker who worked closely with the Grenfell Action Group broadcast on Newsnight (and which you can view here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=An2HxYnJs7Y) confirmed that the group had tried to get lawyers to enforce basic minimum health and safety standards but could not do so because of the cuts to legal aid. What kind of a government prevents the poor from being able to ensure minimum safety standards are provided? Ours, when in 2013 it ignored warnings (sound familiar?) and made cuts to Legal Aid.
The cuts to Legal Aid removed financial assistance for the majority of civil matters such as divorce, housing and welfare. The cuts were controversial and strongly opposed by legal professionals for placing a barrier to justice for anyone other than the super rich. However, the warning from lawyers that the cuts to legal aid would prevent fair access to justice were largely ignored and were instead presented by the majority of the press as greedy lawyers having a moan that the ‘good times’ were over. I can categorically say that I never met a rich lawyer who worked solely on matters funded by Legal Aid. Legal Aid was not a ‘cushty’ payment set up for lawyers, it was crucial in ensuring that people were not denied justice because of limited finance.
The legal landscape has changed a lot in the time I have practised as a solicitor but the erosion of access to justice really concerns me. It’s not just the cuts to Legal Aid which is a factor here, it is also the substantial increase in Civil Court Fees and the introduction of Employment Tribunal Fees (NB: 2018 update – the Supreme Court made the excellent decision to abolish Employment Tribunal Fees in Summer 2017 finding such fees to be unlawful). An example as to how expensive and therefore unattainable justice has become is summed up perfectly in my colleague, Mark Bainbridge’s article in which he sets out that it is cheaper to stay at the Ritz than pay the fees of the Employment Tribunal: http://didlaw.com/employment-tribunal/its-cheaper-at-the-ritz/
There have been some positive changes, most notably the Jackson Reforms in 2013 which introduced Qualified One Way Costs Shifting (‘QOCs’) in personal injury cases. Legal disputes often involve an underdog – a David v Goliath situation and for now QOCs ensures that an injured David is not being costed out of personal injury claims. However, other civil matters are heading in the opposite direction where such is the expense and risk of litigation that legal battles will become the preserve of the superrich. It cannot be right that we are on a course where soon the only cases which will be heard by courts are those involving ‘Super Rich Goliath v Minted & Gilded Goliath’. The government needs to address and rectify this problem now and ensure access to justice is for the MANY, not the privileged few.
Written by Tess Barrett