Changing Britain: There’s Progress, But Access to Justice Has Regressed

It seems to me that many people hunger for the good old days, when life was — so some people argue — better, in every conceivable way. My view is that we must challenge the (lazy) notion that British life was better in the good old days: because — and this might be controversial — in only few strands of British life has the country deteriorated. Law, I would argue — specifically access to justice — is one area which has deteriorated, but the rest of British life has got better. Let me explain how I see things.

In terms of progress, let’s take morality, for instance. During my lifetime (I’m 39), casual racism has gone from being pretty normal behaviour, to something only seen on the fringes (though there was a post-Referendum spike). And take celebrities: today celebs — just like all of us — do some pretty stupid things, but the behaviour of today’s celebs has nothing on the likes of (Sir) Jimmy Saville and his ilk. Operation Yew Tree did not target newbie celebs, rather, its focus was on celebs from the good old days because so many of those celebs acted with impunity. In part, this is because people today are less deferential, ready to report on bad behaviour. Not a day passes when we don’t learn about some appalling incident which happened many years ago, but which has been covered up until the victims have found the courage to speak up. It is easier to out despicable behaviour than it ever was. This, I argue, is progress.

Take graffiti: it has nearly been eradicated in my lifetime. Take littering: it has reduced immeasurably. Take the air we breathe: it’s much cleaner. Take crime: it is on the decrease (though there is a spike in knife crime in the cities and violence at work is shockingly high). Take schools: no longer do teachers beat their pupils. Take stately homes: today many are owned by the National Trust, available to millions. Unarguably, this is progress, isn’t it?

It seems plain to me that most societies progress with each passing generation. This, I think, is because people spend much of their early lives ironing out their own flaws caused, to a large part, by their parents (the unrepeatable line in the Philip Larkin poem springs to mind). As a result, each generation is an improvement on the one before. I can already attest that — to my sheer delight! — my children are more advanced, better educated, than I was at the same stage.

Today, nearly half of all students go to university, mixing with kids from all backgrounds, often studying for the sake of intellectual development (and so they should). With degree subjects for most walks of life, it is inevitable that the people of today are smarter than the people of yesterday, as society’s collective knowledge improves every single day. To aid this progress, the teachers of today have been taught to a more advanced stage than the teachers of yesterday; in turn, they use more advanced teaching methods on their pupils.

Society is better at paragraph two of this blog, than it was at paragraph one. And due to technology, the pace of improvement is accelerating.

Thanks to the internet, today information is democratically devoured: it isn’t the preserve of the rich, and the children of the rich who used to be the only people who owned books or were schooled. Today, for free, we can all watch lectures from Harvard and Oxford dons. Pretty cool, right?

Physically, the people of today are stronger, healthier and more aware of their health than the generations before. No footballer from 1966 could get into today’s England team. Smokers are now regarded as a bit unusual, not cool, as they once were. Today, the people who die of asbestos-related diseases weren’t recently exposed to asbestos at work: they were usually exposed years ago when — criminally — it was known that asbestos was a killer. Deaths and serious injuries due to accidents at work are on the decline: good!

In yesteryear, doctors could make grave mistakes (“never-ever events”) — like removing the wrong kidney — and could get away with it. Not today — thanks to strong regulation and clinical negligence claims. Patients are more willing to challenge their doctors; more likely to have read the NICE guidelines and to have Googled all aspects of their illness. Good.

Back then, in terms of law, lawyers were often in the pub most of Friday, and most law firm partners were men. Not today, I’m pleased to report. Back then, men didn’t spend much time with their kids: not so today. Back then, men didn’t cook or clean. Undeniably, gender roles are liberating, thankfully.

But where I have seen British life collapse is in the ability for most people to obtain access to justice. Let us not forget that it was in the wake of World War Two, with the world on its knees, that the Atlee Government — at a time of national near- bankruptcy — created the NHS. Not long after, came the introduction of Legal Aid. Today, thanks to wholly unfair budget cuts to the Ministry of Justice, we have Legal Aid desserts — where people simply cannot find a Legal Aid lawyer even if they would meet the stringent criteria for support. For the first time in British history we have Legal Aid barristers on strike, because some of them are paid less than the National Minimum Wage. None of my contemporaries from law school became Legal Aid lawyers, even though — like me — they aspired to be one. It is no longer much of a viable career path.

Of course, no win, no fee agreements have improved access to justice in the realms of personal injury, clinical negligence, professional negligence and some employment claims (all introduced by the last Government), but you’ll need a lot of good fortune if your case doesn’t fit neatly into of those categories, or if your case is complex, with no guarantee of success. To make matters worse, advice clinics have been hammered by budget cuts, making it even more difficult to get advice on areas such as housing, family, benefits, debt and immigration. People turn to the internet, but even online the advice is patchy.

To counter the destruction of Legal Aid, Truth Legal has done its bit. Over the years we have provided thousands of hours of free advice, as well as taking on cases because it was the right thing to do, even though we were unlikely to be paid. I’m proud of this work. I wish we could do more.

To close, I ask two things of you, dear reader. First, when people say that life was better in the olden days, gently please put to them some of my observations and listen to their reply. Second — and more importantly — ask your elected officials and prospective representatives what they would do to improve access to justice for all. In my view — and I hope you agree — there is no point having all these wonderful legal rights, when the vast majority of people cannot enforce those rights. Access to justice is a central pillar in any democracy.

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