Opinion: Government reforms spell danger for civil justice

Thousands of injured people stand to lose out through the Government’s latest attack on access to justice.

Stuart Henderson
Stuart Henderson

The title of Ken Clarke’s much touted bill, Legal Aid, ­Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders, certainly offers no clue as to the ­devastating double whammy the Secretary of State is about to unleash on some of the most vulnerable people in society who are entitled to secure the access to justice they need and deserve.

Those affected include brain injured children, who will lose access to legal aid funding to bring cases if errors have left them with severe disabilities that require life-long care and support. This care is currently paid for by the ­compensation they are awarded.

And there’s the rub. The Government claims these children – and other victims now excluded from the legal aid system – can instead rely on no-win, no-fee ­agreements. But at the same time, the Government is destroying that system by taking forward many of the proposals of Lord Justice Jackson, which a range of independent research suggests will deter injured people from bringing legitimate claims and increase the burden on lawyers to act as gatekeepers in the provision of access to justice.

Clarke’s plans represent one of the biggest assaults on access to justice in ­living ­memory. That is why dozens of charities and victims’ groups have urged the ­Government to see sense and back away from moves that will hit hardest the people who need help from the law the most. The Government, though, is ­refusing to listen, even though 75 per cent of ­respondents in recent independent research said that ending recoverability of after-the-event premiums and ­success fees would deter injured people from pursuing their claims.

It is easy to dismiss these views as ’just another claimant lawyer arguing for the maintenance of current levels of legal costs’. But success fees are an easy target.

harities and victims understand the important role they play in allowing lawyers to take on riskier cases and how, under the Government’s plans, finding a lawyer in the most complex cases willing to take an increased risk will be that much harder. Seduced by defendant arguments, ­ministers are set on ripping up the ’loser pays’ principle that has applied for decades behind the smoke screen of ­’compensation culture’.

Let’s be clear though, there is no ­compensation culture. Don’t take my word for it, take the word of Lord Young. His report, for this Government, ­concluded that compensation culture was “more perception than reality”.

And what’s also clear – again in the Government’s own words – is that it ­doesn’t yet know what the full impact of its reforms will be. All of which makes its blind refusal to listen to contrary views more dangerous and more damaging for anyone with a serious injury who will be in need of help from the law in the future.

As we stand the Government is on the brink of delivering reckless cuts to legal aid and destroying a no-win, no-fee ­system that has served consumers well, has been supported by successive ­governments and has provided access to justice for consumers appropriate to a 21st century society. That’s something we should all be worried about.

Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly

has assured me on more than one occasion that the Government’s reform of civil ­justice will be joined up, not piecemeal, and that access to civil justice is “safe in
his hands”. I, for one, am concerned about how strong and secure this Government’s grasp of civil law reform is and whether large groups of deserving citizens will slip through the fingers of a government that is putting the agenda of insurers ahead of those of consumers.