Access to justice 2.0
18 February 2011
A sense of doom is gripping the legal profession in the face of significant cuts to the justice system. Amongst other consequences, legal aid may soon be reformed almost out of existence, meaning that lawyers will face the double jeopardy of fewer clients and more nightmarish cases against litigants in person.
There is little we can do to prevent the cuts. But a shrinking justice system could have an unintended consequence: it may inspire lawyers to take a more activist approach in promoting access to justice, and to find creative ways of bringing the public closer to the law.
In 1999, Lord Woolf stressed that a basic principle of access to justice was that the system should be understandable to those who use it. The resulting civil justice reforms simplified court language and rules. But the justice system is still a frightening place for non-lawyers.
It is time for version 2.0 of the accessibility agenda. Since 1999 the internet has become ubiquitous. This has had many effects on the justice system, from jurors researching their murder trials online to the proliferation of self-help websites for litigants with speeding tickets.
Lawyers themselves have been slower on the uptake than the industrious public, but they are finally catching up. It is now possible to start a website with the click of a few buttons, and case-law has been available for free via the indispensable BAILII for a number of years. As a result a flurry of specialist legal blogs (or blawgs) have been set up by solicitors and barristers, and they have also begun to congregate en mass on Twitter.
For example, on Matrix / Olswang’s UK Supreme Court Blog, experts discuss the latest developments at the nation’s highest court of appeal. The long-established out-law.com by Pinsent Masons provides updates on IT and e-commerce. CharonQC offers an irreverent but incisive perspective, and Nearly Legal comments on most important housing law decisions. The UK Human Rights Blog covers all aspects of human rights law.
There are campaigning blawgs too. Inforrm’s Blog promotes media responsibility whilst solicitor David Allen Green’s Jack of Kent pushes a free speech agenda by combining laser-sharp editorials with the tools of his media law practice.
There are many, many more. The legal blogosphere contains a multitude of voices, viewpoints and, of course, levels of quality. But legal blogs share one feature. These services, which are often as comprehensive and more nimble than their pay-per-view cousins, are completely free to use.
Two questions arise. First, can a free service be trusted? The answer is try one and see. Most are written by dedicated professionals with a lot to lose if they get the detail wrong. And the blawgers are increasingly aware of each other, leading to a vibrant, collaborative and largely self-regulating arena.
Secondly, what is in it for the lawyers who spend hours per week writing content for no fee? Try blogging. Nothing keeps you better updated than publishing your thoughts on the law. And being able to explain the law in plain language is one of the key skills of a good lawyer.
It may also make you money. The UK Human Rights Blog received over 40,000 hits last month, after only 10 months in operation. Great publicity for my chambers from a service that has cost practically nothing to set up. And better understanding the law may help members of the public realise when they need a lawyer. So “free” does not have to mean “charity”.
The courts getting involved too. The new Supreme Court has a statutory duty to be “accessible” to the public and, in light of this, produces an online press release alongside every judgment, summarising the main principles. The effect of these summaries cannot be understated. Any member of the public or the non-legal press now has a reasonable chance of understanding what our highest appeal court is up to, although this has not completely prevented misreporting of decisions. This is even more important for human rights decisions which can affect large sections of the public. This system should now be rolled out to the Court of Appeal and High Court.
Last night, I spoke alongside legal blogging doyens David Allen Green (Jack of Kent / New Statesman) and Carl Gardner (Head of Legal) at a discussion on the future of legal blogging, to an audience composed entirely of legal bloggers and journalists. The atmosphere was friendly and excitable, and the overwhelming sentiment was that legal blogging and tweeting have a great future and can co-exist and complement traditional legal journalism, whilst also keeping journalists on their toes.
Bringing the public closer to the law is no panacea. There will always be a need for legal experts to conduct litigation just as patients need doctors to perform surgery. And legal aid cannot be replaced by DIY. But Lord Woolf was right to say that making the law understandable is an essential requirement of access to justice, not to mention democracy. This is not a task for the public sector alone, and the money is running out. So get blogging.
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