We need to focus on people – justice is more than a process
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Marc Bloomfield
Description: Lady Justice close up (Hermann Traub_Pixabay)
Last month, I had the pleasure of remotely attending the International Legal Aid Group’s 2021 conference in Sydney. As the conference started, a promotional film of New South Wales started to play; pictures of golden sands, deep-blue skies and rolling oceans left me feeling slightly bereft as I watched under the grey skies of west London. But the conference was great – a network of legal aid specialists across the world, sharing ideas, knowledge and information via a range of presentations spread over three early UK mornings to coincide with Sydney’s late afternoons.
I was invited by Roger Smith, a former director of LAG and one of the founder members of the group. It was a pleasure to see familiar faces – people I had met while in Australia in 2019 – but it left me longing to be there in person. Jane Cipants of Legal Aid New South Wales spoke of the client-centred approach in their delivery of legal aid – a new model, based on the design principles of the Sydney Opera House, which is accessible, meets clients’ needs, is data-informed, flexible and adaptable. This was the head of the equivalent of our Legal Aid Agency talking about innovation and change with the client at the heart of the service. Not for the first time that morning, I felt bereft.
Some brilliant ideas can, of course, be much closer to home, and Baroness Hale’s call for caravan courts is one of them. Speaking at the Volunteers’ Week 2021 panel debate, ‘Rule of law & access to justice: where do we go from here?’, on 4 June 2021, hosted by Pro Bono Week UK and LexisNexis, she explained that court closures have made it less likely that users will attend court and that remote hearings will not be of assistance to people who lack the appropriate technology. It is a view that I agree with and is borne out by my own experience before leaving practice. Baroness Hale’s solution is to mobilise: ‘We need a caravan court which consists of a judge and magistrates and an official [that] tours round the various towns and villages [and] enables real local justice to take place.’ It isn’t a new idea, though: in the Northern Territories of Australia, they have bush courts where judges and defence and prosecution lawyers fly into remote locations to dispense justice.
Bush courts operate on the premise that all Australians should have access to the court system, however remotely they live, but criticism has pointed to the heavy caseloads and lack of translation facilities at the courts. Livia Albeck-Ripka, a reporter for the New York Times, described bush courts as ‘a judicial assembly line, one that leads to incarceration … translation services are lacking, and cases are adjudicated extremely rapidly, by outsiders flown in and out’ (‘“Like a cattle yard”: how justice is delivered in Australia’s bush courts’, New York Times, 6 December 2020). In other parts of Australia, there are community courts where judges hear cases with the indigenous elders of the village, who will advise on the defendant’s background and sentences that are culturally appropriate. In this way, trust is built within the community and confidence in the justice system enhanced – local justice for local people (just what the UK used to have before the courts were closed).
Innovation could just be bringing your dog to court, as the prosecutor Frederic Almendros does to calm witnesses. Hearing about an experiment in Seattle, he decided to try it in his court in Lot, France. Since then, the dog has been involved in calming witnesses in more than 80 criminal investigations. Almendros told the BBC: ’The dog sitting next to them in court has often helped victims handle the stress of a trial’ (Chris Bockman, ‘French court dog helps soothe anxious victims of crime’, BBC News, 21 June 2021). What shines through in this story is the humanity: that justice isn’t just a process, but is dealing with real people; that it is starting to look at trauma-informed ways of delivering justice.
Which brings me to what has become known as the ‘harm review’. It is now just over a year since the Ministry of Justice published Assessing risk of harm to children and parents in private law children cases: final report (June 2020), which highlighted systemic problems within the family court’s response to domestic abuse. The majority of the report’s recommendations remain unimplemented, leaving survivors with a court system that has an outdated understanding of domestic abuse.
We need to do so much better. As Professor Luke Clements has written, the law is ‘loaded’ (Clustered injustice and the level green, LAG, 2020, page 15), it is not a level playing field. For many, there are layers upon layers of injustice within our society. Recognition of this has to be incorporated into our justice system. A court is not just a place and justice is not just a process. In the UK, we are heading down the path of dispute resolution eBay style; elsewhere, they seem able to innovate, to put the person at the centre. Travelling to, and collaborating with people from, other countries can open your eyes to the possibilities; it can also leave you feeling bereft.
The LAG Housing Law Conference 2021 was brilliant – informative, useful and thought-provoking with a bit of fun thrown in. I’d like to thank all the speakers for their time, energy and enthusiasm, our generous sponsors and all of the delegates for coming along and being so engaged. Great things happen when we come together. Thank you for making my first LAG conference so special.

About the author(s)

Description: Sue James
Sue James is CEO of LAG. She was previously director and housing solicitor at Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre and a founding trustee at Ealing Law...