Letter to the editor: A public service unlike any other
Marc Bloomfield
When making the case for an adequately funded justice system, advocates struggle to be heard over the competing calls from other similarly stricken sectors, whether they be the emergency services, schools or the NHS. With finite resources, governments must prioritise. This is the case whether the decision is to make provision for new or expanded public services, or, as is our current and unfortunate situation, renewal after a period of austerity.
The particular problem for those who campaign on behalf of the justice system is that our concerns do not attract the public’s sympathy, or even interest, in the same way that other causes do. In part, this is due to unfamiliarity. It’s quite possible to go through life without ever having to go to court or interact in any real way with the legal system. In comparison, the services provided by the Departments of Work and Pensions, Health and Social Care, and Education feature prominently in many lives and are at least minor players in the rest. There is a reason why the Labour party can bank on the public’s distrust of the Conservatives’ plans for the NHS, but it is impossible to rouse a rabble over the current court ‘modernisation’ programme, which has seen the closure and sale of a huge number of courthouses in favour of a still largely theoretical online court.
Even for those people who have at some point in their lives found themselves a part of legal proceedings, it’s often a rare or isolated occurrence. It will almost certainly be a negative experience, but unless you regularly interact with the system, it is impossible to observe the deterioration in standards and provision. It is easier for lawyers and others who work in and around the legal sector to chart the decline, but they are imperfect messengers. Too often, in the public’s eyes, they are advocating only in order to line their own pockets. It remains difficult to shift the public perception that lawyers fall primarily into one of two camps: either the criminal hacks who are fleecing the public purse while defending the guilty or the corporate solicitors sitting atop piles of money in glass offices in the City.
Any effective campaigning message must centre on the public themselves. Even if someone has never had a lawyer, they will have certainly had to contend with problems in their life that would have been aided by one. The focus must be on the person and their problem, with legal support in the role of prevention and cure. A siloed justice lobby will never be as effective as lawyers working within housing activist groups, as part of police accountability projects or alongside trade unions.
Consider a particularly tragic example: to prevent a disaster like the fire at Grenfell Tower from ever happening again, work needs to be done to ensure investment in social housing and to create a radically different attitude towards poorer residents from local authorities. As part of these wider causes, the job of lawyers is to help in crafting more stringent regulation and to argue for access to legal representation for vulnerable residents as and when they need it.
To better understand and communicate the justice sector’s relationship with other public services, lawyers can find inspiration in the words of their highest authority, the Supreme Court. In considering a case brought by the trade union Unison, which challenged the introduction of steep fees for those wishing to bring cases to the employment tribunal, the court rejected ‘the assumption that the administration of justice is merely a public service like any other’.1R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor [2017] UKSC 51 at para 66. Instead of just providing a benefit to those who are forced to bring a case to court, the threat of action creates a deterrent that safeguards a much wider population. However, this deterrent only operates if the justice system is effective and the threat is real. Otherwise, there is little to stop rogue landlords and bullying bosses from simply ignoring the law, however much protection it seems to offer on paper.
To gain the support of the public, advocates for a properly funded justice system must adopt the Supreme Court’s approach and embrace the idea that it is a public service unlike any other. We must take up the mantle and work together with activists and campaigners on a spectrum of issues to guarantee the rights and protections that have been hard won but are becoming increasingly inaccessible.
1     R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor [2017] UKSC 51 at para 66. »

About the author(s)

Description: Ian Browne - author
Ian Browne has experience working in the social welfare and human rights advice sector, alongside campaigning for greater access to justice.