Access to justice is central to the rule of law in a civilised and democratic society. But how easy is it to access? Why do some people find it more difficult than others? And what barriers stop people exercising their rights?
To understand more about these issues, the Senedd’s Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee and Citizen Engagement Team teamed up to talk with legal practitioners and people involved in lawsuits across Wales.
This article will look at some of the key themes raised in this engagement, and examine how the Welsh and UK governments have responded.
Understanding your legal rights
One of the biggest barriers to accessing justice is people’s knowledge and understanding of their legal rights. It was suggested that there is a lower level of understanding of legal rights in Wales than in England, particularly when the law in England and Wales differs.
Participants shared examples of confusion about which laws apply in Wales, including a notice being served in Wales under housing legislation that only applies to England, and a Ministry of Justice Q&A tool that only applied the law as it relates to England, even if you select that you live in Wales.
Accessing justice in the Welsh language was another issue identified. One legal practitioner said they haven’t used Welsh in their legal work for a long time out of fear that court staff would not know how to deal with it, and wouldn’t produce a translation.
Recruiting and retaining legal staff is a growing issue. The move to remote working has changed the market; firms in places such as London and Bristol are able to offer higher salaries than Welsh companies, without the need for relocation.
One participant highlighted increasing levels of staff turnover, difficulty in retraining staff, and maintaining staff wellbeing as key issues affecting their business.
Impact of legislation and government policy
The impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LAPSO) was discussed at length. Particularly the impact on available capacity in social welfare and employment law, with only very few sources of free or cheap advice still available for people to access.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 made reforms to the criminal justice system, including reducing funding for legal aid. The Law Society has noted that these funding cuts have meant that fewer people can access legal advice.
Investments made by the Welsh Government in social welfare advice following the introduction of LAPSO were identified as having a positive impact. However, participants stressed that further support is needed to meet demand, and to support people progressing through the courts.
To help people find help and support with legal issues, Senedd Research has published a guide for constituents, which signposts to sources of legal advice.
Accessibility and technology
Significant travel times in parts of Wales, and inadequate public transport infrastructure means that arriving at a hearing on time is challenging for many. Some contributors explained that these issues have a disproportionate impact on those on low incomes.
The use of technology can help to alleviate some of these challenges, and its increased use during the Covid-19 pandemic was largely seen as positive. It can help organisations to create more efficient, streamlined services, and engage with groups or demographics that may otherwise have difficulties accessing advice.
However, accessibility issues, such as broadband coverage and digital literacy, could lead to some people being unable to access legal advice if traditional methods of accessing advice are not maintained.
How have the Welsh and UK governments responded?
The Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution, Mick Antoniw MS, welcomed the Committee’s work, and noted that the Welsh Government shares the “substantive access to justice concerns raised” in the report.
The Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution stated the Welsh Government’s commitment ensure that people in Wales can access quality-assured advice services.
The response outlined Welsh Government actions to support the legal sector. These include new legal apprenticeship and paralegal qualifications, delivering a package of tailored business support to legal practices and establishing a working group to develop the public law bar in Wales.
Lord Bellamy KC, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice in the UK Government, responded on behalf of the Ministry of Justice. He outlined the UK Government’s commitment to “promoting the UK-wide legal sector and legal services in all three jurisdictions”. He gave examples of areas where the UK Government is providing funding across the UK, including for legal aid programmes, not-for-profit legal support providers and for increasing the use of technology in the delivery of legal services.
In his response, Lord Bellamy also recognised the need for collaboration between the Ministry of Justice and the Welsh Government to ensure Welsh law is accessible, and noted they had been “working closely” to address some of the recommendations of the Thomas Commission.
Taking these issues forward
The Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee has an opportunity to probe the response from Lord Bellamy KC, and other issues relating to justice, at its next meeting on Monday 5 December.
A full summary report of the Citizen Engagement Team’s activity is available here.
Article by Josh Hayman, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament