“Systemic change is needed in the UK’s justice system. Tinkering around the edges is not enough.”
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Marc Bloomfield
I’m sitting in the Australian desert, 15,000 miles away from London, reading the government’s response to the LASPO review (Post-implementation review of Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), CP 37, Ministry of Justice, 7 February 2019). I can’t say I’m disappointed, because that would mean I had expectations that have been dashed – and I didn't. I had no expectations, but I did have hope.
It’s hope, and resilience, that have enabled me to continue to practise as a legal aid lawyer for the past 28 years. In my own career, I’ve seen legal aid move from being for the many, to now just for the few. The review was a missed opportunity to make real change; because what’s been really clear from my Canadian trip last summer, and now as I travel through Australia looking at its justice system, is that systemic change is needed in the UK. Tinkering around the edges is not enough.
What this government continually fails to do is have a joined-up, well-thought-through proposal for anything, let alone justice. A perfect example is the recent ‘call for evidence’ on the proposal for a new housing court (Considering the case for a housing court: a call for evidence, November 2018). This wasn’t published by HM Courts and Tribunals Service as part of its court reform programme; it was from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Why?
The consultation document was odd, to say the least. Of four parts, the first two were specifically about private landlords’ claims for possession. On the proposal for a housing court itself (tucked in the final part), there was very little detail. Initially, I liked the idea of a housing court. I wondered what a specialist forum could look like: experienced lawyers, judges, social workers, welfare benefit specialists, all fully funded with legal aid – it could be transformative. (Of course, it wouldn’t be, not with this government, which would want to do it on the cheap, with no legal aid and no representation for tenants.)
Looking more closely at the consultation document, though, it became clear that it was a bit of a sop to private landlords, who believe it is taking too long to obtain possession. However, they confuse procedure with delay. And in fact there was very little delay for private landlords, as the evidence that sat behind the consultation document revealed. It found that when you separated the private from the social landlord cases, the median average time taken to progress a claim to possession by county court bailiff was just 16.1 weeks (page 7, para 18).
The document also provides that the majority of landlords do not experience difficulties in recovering their properties from tenants. But when they do have to recover possession, the primary reason for landlords removing a tenant is rent arrears, accounting for 62 per cent of removed tenants (page 7, para 16). Having spent a good deal of my career as duty solicitor on possession days, I know that arrears are mostly caused by benefit problems, which are still out of scope for legal aid, despite all the evidence of need that was given to the LASPO review team. Another missed opportunity and another example of fragmented thinking.
What is increasingly worrying about the court reform programme, though, is that there has been no analysis to date of what effect court closures are having on access to justice. Colleagues tell me that since the move from the County Court at Lambeth to the County Court at Clerkenwell and Shoreditch, the possession lists are longer, but fewer tenants turn up. We don’t know why. The only research so far on court closures is by Dr Olumide Adisa from the University of Suffolk, who has documented the failure of defendants to appear in the one remaining magistrates’ court in Suffolk (Access to justice: assessing the impact of the magistrates’ court closures in Suffolk, University of Suffolk, July 2018). What she found was that defendants were being arrested for failure to show, as they couldn’t make the long distances to court (up to 40 miles away). With scarce public transport (as this had also been cut), the police had effectively become a taxi service for the courts, picking up defendants at home and transporting them to the court.
The Justice Committee is currently looking more closely at the court reform programme. It has put out a call for evidence with a deadline of 11 March 2019 – please respond. We see a lot that’s wrong, and it needs to be documented. Justice isn’t an administrative process, it’s a judicial one. In Alice Springs, they have ‘Bush courts’, which move around the Northern Territory taking justice to the local people. Now wouldn’t that be a revolutionary way to dispense justice – instead of via a computer screen.
The mainstream press now seem to be taking notice, which is most welcome. We need to keep them interested with our stories and we need to do more campaigning – otherwise it will be our missed opportunity.

About the author(s)

Sue James
Sue James is director and housing solicitor at Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre and a founding trustee at Ealing Law Centre. She won the...