Access to justice was not something I thought about much until I started working for Which? the consumer organisation. I had just assumed that when you needed to use the law to solve a problem you’d be able to. But negotiating the legal system is not an easy task, even with the help, or sometimes hindrance, of a lawyer.
I spent a lot of time not being very nice about lawyers and berating them for not treating their customers fairly. As far as I could see, access to justice was being undermined by their old-fashioned, expensive and opaque services. I saw the Legal Services Act 2007 as a great achievement, which would open up the legal market and make it more accessible for thousands, if not millions, of people.
All well and good, but once I started to realise access to justice isn’t just about being able to get advice about your divorce on a Sunday or draft a will on the internet. The justice system is much wider than just high street solicitors and big, multi-million city firms. For many people, justice means getting advice about their housing or debt problem; or challenging an immigration decision or a benefit cut; or getting redress for an NHS mistake.
Fortunately this realisation coincided with my discovery of the Public Law Project. Here was a charity that wasn’t just campaigning for change, as I’d been doing at Which? and subsequently, to a lesser extent, at a national law firm, but an organisation directly helping people secure access to justice in often profoundly important areas.
Since joining the board I have developed an even greater respect for the work PLP does with the bare minimum of resources but totally dedicated staff. And this work is set to become more and more important in the light of budget cuts that threaten the services many individuals and communities rely on.
Public officials have unenviable decisions about what will be cut, but the difficulty of their task is not an excuse to ignore people’s rights and entitlements. Coupled with the significant cuts being proposed in the scope of legal aid there is a real danger that some of the most vulnerable groups in society will suffer disproportionately.
Which is where PLP comes in. We have a unique blend of research, training and casework enabling us to influence policy makers and decision makers across government. It is designed to help improve access to public law remedies and establish important principles to protect the most disadvantaged from poor decisions by both local and national organisations.
The focus of our recent research has been the judicial review process and how claims are concluded. We are now working with Essex University on a major project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, looking at the outcomes for claimants and whether judgements change legislation and practice.
We recently supported the charity Medical Justice to bring a case about the UK Border Agency’s ‘exceptions policy’, which involves giving some migrants less than the standard 72 hours notice of removal. These often include vulnerable people at risk of suicide or self harm and unaccompanied children. The government said those due to be removed had ‘effective access to the courts’, but the High Court quashed the policy, saying the practical difficulties in getting legal assistance meant those affected had no ‘adequate right to justice’. The government is appealing the decision.
In another example, PLP, working with the Law Centres Federation, discovered local authorities were systematically passing young homeless people from one department to another, often refusing to help them at all. This in contradiction of the law stating social services are responsible for homeless 16 and 17 year olds and authorities must provide a package of support, not just housing. PLP helped support and train advisers working with homeless children to ensure they were properly accommodated.
These cases barely scratch the surface of PLP’s work, but they illustrate the impact this small organisation has year after year. By ensuring access to justice isn’t just a slogan but a reality, PLP has more than demonstrated its worth. It is a great achievement to have been doing this for 21 years and I am honoured to sit on the board of such an important and influential organisation. As Sir Henry Brooke, PLP patron, put it “if the Public Law Project did not exist, someone would have to invent it – quickly”