The UK justice system was facing enormous challenges, long before the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns. Tony Buss, MD of ARAG, explains how access to justice was already declining in the UK, how the legal profession has adapted and what the longer-term consequences are likely to be.
It is no secret that the UK justice system has been struggling for some time.
Justice and the population’s ability to access it are not easy things to quantify, but some measures are clear and irrefutable.
The number of court and tribunal buildings that have closed, the time that parties have to wait for a hearing and the huge cuts to Legal Aid and the wider Ministry of Justice budget, all indicate a trend in the wrong direction.
Even by international comparison, our standards are slipping.
Last year, I wrote about Britain’s slight decline in the Rule of Law Index that is researched, compiled and published by the World Justice Project. The 2020 report, which now ranks some 128 countries, saw the UK slip another place (swapping with Singapore) and our scores decline a little further.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UK falls well behind many of our peers in higher income countries in the area of civil law, with our lowest score in all categories being that awarded for the “accessibility & affordability” of civil justice.
Quite what impact the pandemic will have on how our justice system ranks against the rest of the world may be hard to predict, but there is no doubt that the impact in most countries will be negative and perhaps especially so here in the UK
In some ways, the justice system responded very well to the immediate impact of pandemic and lockdown. Many were surprised at how readily the challenges of social distancing and remote working were met, and how the courts and parties adapted to the constraints.
For our part, ARAG saw claims numbers drop off initially, offset by a big increase in calls for legal advice from both personal and commercial policyholders, especially around employment, landlord/tenant and contract issues.
Those call volumes told us that a spike in claims would inevitably follow and, despite the Chancellor’s latest efforts, the unavoidable increase in redundancies will bring with it an influx of employment claims that will only add to the growing backlog in the employment tribunal system. Already, solicitors are talking about longer hearings being scheduled for 2022.
Medical negligence is another area of law in which the initial response was commendable. In spite of the significant challenges of going ahead with trials, often involving already vulnerable litigants and calling on witnesses whose expertise was urgently required elsewhere, the system largely coped.
The longer-term prognosis, however, looks similar to that for employment and many other areas of civil litigation. Clinical negligence claims that were already taking many years to resolve look likely to be drawn out even further. The intolerable stress that this will put upon the victims of medical malpractice and their families, who just want to get on with what is left of their lives, will be a growing, largely silent tragedy.
There is no easy answer, of course. This latest impediment to justice is almost universal and was not caused by any action or neglect.
However, while our health service, education system and the wider economy have all, quite rightly, seen enormous investment in the effort to survive and recover from the pandemic, our justice system continues to fall very far down the list of priorities.
Access to justice is something that is so easy to take for granted but very difficult to recover, once it is lost. Often, its importance is only fully understood and appreciated by the minority who need to call upon it.
Whether or not the UK justice system falls further down the global league tables, remains to be seen. Any hope of it recovering though, seems impossible without huge investment that seems very unlikely to come.