Friday, 9 December 2016

Let's get Law Students to fill the justice gap!

One consequence of the cuts in Access to legal advice has been the growth in the number of DIY litigants, those who represent themselves in court because they cannot afford to get anybody else to do it. I can remember when a Litigant in Person was a rare phenomenon, often a person who had fallen out with a series of legal advisers. Everything has changed. The numbers are growing by the day. We all knew that such litigants had become a major feature of our courts’ system when they became LiPs. Once you have an acronym you have arrived!

The problem is that for most people, our justice system is a strange and scary world. 

This leads to litigation which takes longer, is less certain and which carries a far greater risk of injustice. That is particularly the case where one side, say an insurer in an accident claim, is represented by top lawyers and the other side is battling alone. In view of the recent proposal by the government to bring most accident claims into the small claims court, we will see an explosion of LiPs.

The problem has been highlighted today by Lady Justice King who referred to a case involving litigants in person and which saw a - ‘slew’ of emails from both parties to the judge and the court, which made the case ‘nearly impossible to case manage effectively’

She called for there to be powers to curb the activities of such litigants. There is a risk that out justice system could become log jammed and ultimately a laughing stock.

The need to address this is recognised by most lawyers and judges. 

One of our most senior judges talked about the problem earlier this week. Sir Terence Etherington, Master of the Rolls acknowledged the real need to improve access to justice in the face of deep financial cuts. His suggestion was that law graduates could fill the gap. He called for a joint initiative involving universities and pro bono agencies enabling students who have passed their exams to assist litigants in person. 

‘They would do so as trainees registered with the university or pro bono advice centre, but only following training akin to that already given by such organisations. And they would be supervised by lawyers – permanent employees of [advice centres] or other lawyers provided pro bono by law firms or chambers.’

This sounds promising, but in reality it is a hopeful fantasy. Universities already do a sterling job trying to fill the justice gap. One such initiative is the Legal Advice Clinic run by Liverpool John Moores University. They provide free advice in relation to Family, Employment and Wills/Probate. The students provide a high quality service with help from volunteer lawyers. It is a demanding project. Students have to be carefully trained and supervised. Resources are stretched to the limit. To suggest that they could take on full responsibility for advising hundreds of litigants in person is simply not realistic. This is not to diminish the value of law students. We have all been there. Even Lord Pannick QC was once a student! But they and their teachers cannot be expected to fill the massive gaps in access to advice. Not without far greater resources. Those resources could just as easily go to funding established advice agencies.

Universities will do what they can.

Pro Bono lawyers will do what they can.

Underfunded advice agencies will do what they can.

But until justice is seen as a political priority we are really just maintaining the deck chairs on a sinking ship.

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