"I genuinely believe access to justice is the hallmark of a civilised society."
So said former Justice Minister, Ken Clarke, in the run up to the devastating cuts to the Legal Aid Scheme in 2013.
Nobody would disagree with that statement. What is the point of having a civil justice system if ordinary citizens are deprived of a means of accessing it?
I have mentioned legal aid many times, and will continue to do so. But one thing that has added insult to injury has been the huge hike in court fees and the introduction of fees for Tribunals –
Following the imposition of fees in Employment Tribunals there were reports of reductions of up to 80% in the number of cases being brought –
If ever there was a case of access to justice being limited to the wealthy then this is surely it.
The most recent development is the plan to impose a massive increase in the fees payable to immigration and asylum tribunals. Is there a more vulnerable group than those who lives are at risk? Is there any other group less likely to be in a position to afford them? This has led to 24 prominent lawyers writing an open letter to the government expressing ‘serious concerns’ that this will put justice beyond the reach of many. The increase in some cases is almost 600%
The lawyers explain that the cost will make justice prohibitive to the vast majority of claimants –
‘It would cost £4,000 for a family of five to appeal, clearly preventing the vast majority of immigrants from challenging unlawful decisions. The proposals exempt those in receipt of legal aid from paying; however, most immigration cases are out of scope for legal aid, therefore only a small minority will benefit from this.’
They urge the government to hold back from imposing the fees.
All of our attention in the last few weeks has been on the euro referendum and its aftermath. We will soon have a new Prime Minister.
I would add my voice to the signatories to the letter and urge the new government to respect its duties to protect rather than block access to justice for those most at risk.