Tag Archives: Law Reform

Human Rights Law & Personal Injury Claims

Recent years have seen several far reaching reforms enacted to the UK justice system.

Such reforms have encompassed legal aid funding, legal reform, and an emphasis on arbitration and mediation in courts and tribunals, which will further impact upon the provision of justice. 2014 also saw the implementing of new contracts for police station solicitors; the tender process, and the actual contracts, were widely condemned and criticised by many in the legal sector.

The overall impact of such reforms has been to essentially deny justice to many thousands of average, households in the UK, a fact which the legal sector has raised in no uncertain terms. Most of the legal reforms are ultimately (but not entirely) a simple cost cutting measure, amidst reduced public funding and a slow, painful economic recovery. However, to an extent, the legal reforms, and the ensuing limited access to justice, are, ironically, potentially illegal.

Human Rights law, both domestic and EU, requires and allows for a full and impartial trial, with adequate and proper legal representation throughout any legal proceedings. Articles 5 and 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) addresses this, as does the Human Rights Act (1998). The recent legal reforms mentioned, however, seriously challenge that fundamental legal and human right.

A good example here is employment law. This is an increasingly touchy and emotive area of law as job security and zero hours contracts are a major current legal issue. Aside from that, employers have a responsibility for the health and safety of their staff, visitors and contractors in the workplace. If health and safety rules and regulations are breached, there can be accidents and injuries at work. Such accidents can range from a few cuts and blisters, to sprained ankles, to broken limbs, to long term chronic medical conditions developing. The result of an injury at work can be to cost the business greatly in productivity and lost working hours, as well as on-going support for injured employees; HSE figures for 2012/13 show that the estimated cost of workplace injuries and health issues arising was just over £14 billion. Of course, economics aside, that is nothing compared to the human cost for those actually injured.

The law enshrines the right of the injured party to make such an injury at work claim, under tort and civil law. Amidst such legal reforms, it would be very hard for the average employee to take their legal claim to court. Although the (2014) average wage nationally in the UK was £26,500, inflation, debts and the rising cost of living severely reduces the amount of money an average employee would have fund a legal case. Further, the great majority of unskilled workers (often in industries prone to severe workplace injuries) actually earn more in the £10,000 – £13,000 bracket (2014 figures), or less. Amidst the legal reforms, bringing a simple workplace injury claim to court is therefore far beyond the means of the average employee.

In the personal injury sector, however, many cases continue to be funded by Conditional Fee Agreements (CFA). With a CFA, litigants only pay their lawyers on the understanding that their case will be won, and that compensation will be awarded. Litigants do not pay if their case is unsuccessful. If it were not for the system of CFA funding, many personal injury litigants, be they injured at the workplace or indeed elsewhere, would simply not be able to obtain the justice that they are entitled to under law.

Employment law, and personal injury law aside, there are many areas of law (such as family) where it is simply too costly in time, effort, procedure and money, for people to obtain justice- contrary to human rights law.

The legal sector has tried to protest this, and to raise this very serious concern. The government is more concerned with the Budget and economic recovery, as opposed to such legal niceties. The fact remains that the reforms are potentially illegal, as they deny justice to many, in breach of human rights law.

One government response has been to put in the 2015 Queen’s Speech plans to reform and replace current human rights legislation with a new Bill of Rights or similar. In that fashion, with new human rights principles, the government can no longer be said to be acting in breach of current human rights provisions that enshrine the right of all to seek a legal remedy in court.

Legal Aid Sector Concerned Amidst Effects of Reforms

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Despite great opposition from parliament, lobbyists, and the legal sector, Kenneth Clarke’s highly unpopular legal aid cuts came into effect. From 1st April, legal aid is no longer available in most civil law areas. Family disputes such as divorce and custody are no longer covered, as are welfare, immigration, employment, clinical negligence, housing, debt, benefit and education.

Although savings of around £350m are to be made to the Ministry of Justice budget, and additional savings in court time and money will be made over time, critics point out the cost of these savings is too high.

Many legal charities and legal aid firms are feeling the effects already. Government figures estimate that around 600,000 people will lose access to justice with the withdrawal of funding; some constituencies already have no legal aid firms. Some centres have had to turn people away. Indications show that up to 1,000 law firms taking cases up backed by legal aid are likely to diversify to different areas of law, or close.

The lack of free legal advice or representation in certain legal areas will have a dramatic impact on people’s lives. In a pseudo- postcode lottery, legal advice services are heavily concentrated in London and the south east, making it easier for claimants to get the free advice they need. In other areas, especially the north, Midlands, south west and Wales, legal advice is less widespread, resulting in such closures affecting people and communities more. This and other reports has raised great concern in the legal sector that the most vulnerable and most in need will be denied access to justice, advice or representation.

Another effect already being witnessed as the changes come into force is on legal sector jobs. Several Citizen Advice Bureaux have sent out redundancy notices to many staff, and several similar charities have been forced to close offices. A survey, conducted by the Centre for Human Rights in Practice at the University of Warwick and the website ilegal, found that 29% of legal aid workers felt at personal risk of losing their job over the cuts. The most experienced legal aid workers were at the greatest risk of redundancy, in addition to workers in areas of high demand such as housing, debt and welfare benefits.

In a great change in working ethos and culture, some previously free legal centres have now had to start charging for their services- a move which the legal sector as a whole was most anxious and determined to avoid.

In measures to avoid denying claimants access to justice, the government and the Big Lottery are to invest £65m in providing support over the next two years to law centres while the transition is made, with telephone and online advice centres also being opened. The Bar Council has recently published a handbook to assist and advice the expected increasing numbers of litigants in person (LIP’s; claimants who represent themselves in court). Justice Minister Lord McNally has stated that, even after the changes, the government will be spending £1.7bn in legal aid annually, and will have contracts with solicitors nationwide to ensure that all claimants can get representation and advice.

Kenneth Clarke’s legal aid reforms, since proposed, were controversial, and have met great opposition at all levels. Coming into force only a week ago on April 1st, the effects in cutbacks, jobs, and the inability of claimants to get legal advice is already evident.

Of the reforms and their impact, ilegal founder Patrick Torsney stated that “these findings are indicative of the precarious state of the whole legal aid advice sector in this country at the moment. Urgent action is required to protect it. Without such action there will be terrible consequences for vulnerable people across the country and for our legal system itself.”

Guest article provided by Henry Court. Henry has published on a number of sites and works in conjunction with PPICalculator.co.uk – fighting for fairness and compensation for everyday people.