‘Age of legal aid has passed,’ delegates at litigants in person conference told
A legal adviser to the country’s most senior judges says legal expenses insurance will fill the gap left by cuts in public funding and has declared that the ‘age of legal aid has passed’.
Dr John Sorabji, principal legal adviser to the Master of the Rolls and the Lord Chief Justice, was speaking at the Civil Justice Council’s Fourth National Forum on Access to Justice for Litigants in Person.
Sorabji is an academic and also lectures on principles of civil justice, but his views did not go unchallenged. Tom Dunn, pro bono director at City firm Clifford Chance, suggested that, rather than being a thing of the past, legal aid still has a vital role to play in access to justice. ‘It is incumbent on all of us to understand the legal aid system,’ and to refer appropriate cases to legal aid providers, he said. In a similar vein, Paul Yates, head of London pro bono at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, said free services were ‘a drop in the ocean’ compared with demand for legal advice from people who could not afford lawyers.
Also speaking at the conference, Lord Dyson MR said the withdrawal of legal aid and rising costs of lawyers are behind the increasing numbers of litigants in person in the courts system. During his speech, justice minister Lord Faulks (pictured above right) acknowledged that for ‘the reasons the Master of the Rolls outlined’, there is a growing problem of LiPs. The minister went on to praise the pro bono and personal support unit services, which have expanded, with the backing of government, to meet demand. He also pledged that online dispute resolution ‘will happen’.
The theme of digital innovation ran through many of the discussions at the event. Lord Dyson welcomed the investment of £700m, which the government had pledged in the autumn statement for the digitisation of courts. The academic and leading advocate for technological innovation in legal services, Prof Richard Susskind, argued that the digital divide was much less than many believed. While 80 per cent of people have direct access to the internet, this goes up to 96 per cent if access through third parties is included. He warned that, on the reform of the courts, the ‘timescale is too tight’, as the ‘difficult bit is ahead’, suggesting that time needs to be devoted to rethinking processes. Government would be best to take a gradual approach to this, he said.
LAG director Steve Hynes (pictured) said: ‘LAG welcomes the commitment to technological innovation and understands the concerns around LiPs, but we feel that justice policy seems to be falling into the trap of being led by the courts system rather than focusing on the legal problems many members of the public face which never make it to court.’