Why be afraid of an open justice system?

Making justice more accessible to all has to be the way of the future. New and imaginative thinking is called for on such an awesome project.

However, there are signs that this is exactly what is happening. The whole legal aid debate is no longer black and white. Even Labour's Shadow Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, points out in a recent collection of essays by leading Labour lawyers that the best way to save money is not to exclude people from access to justice, but to cut the cost of litigation.

The system as it stands is built to exclude as many from the justice process as it can – however, the move to find other ways of resolving disputes can go some way to improving this.

We must, therefore, welcome the launch of the British Association of Lawyer Mediators, which will have its first meeting this week. While mediation is not applicable to all situations, it is one more option open to those involved in the dispute process. Insurance companies are also devising imaginative schemes where individuals can get legal insurance for legal remedies.

Another avenue of redress often bypassed is the ombudsman, according to Sheila McKechnie of the Consumers' Association in an article on page seven of this issue. She says solicitors often fail to mention ombudsman schemes to clients and although there are shortcomings in many schemes, they allow consumers to pursue grievances without major legal costs being incurred. Furthermore, ombudsmen schemes need to be regulated so that only those which genuinely offer the consumer an impartial and reasonable speedy judgment of a complaint should deserve the name.

The legal aid budget will not be increased under any future government and the legal profession will have to accept this. Flexibility is the key to providing advice. As McKechnie says, access to justice is more than just access to the legal system.