This week, two legal milestones were marked: the birthday of Justice Secretary Chris Grayling and the first anniversary of one of the most significant recent reforms to the way our justice system is financed and supported.
Over recent months, barristers and solicitors have taken to the streets to protest against the cuts to legal aid, and newspaper after newspaper has written about the way only those with deep pockets are able to pursue criminal claims.
Whilst access to criminal legal aid is a serious issue which has grabbed the headlines, let’s not forget about the Jackson reforms, which are having an equally profound effect on civil justice.
Proposals by Lord Justice Jackson entered into force on the same day as the Legal Aid and Sentencing of Offenders Act (LASPO), which outlined changes to criminal legal aid. The Jackson reforms, as his proposals are often called, set out significant changes to the financing of civil justice claims, such as personal injury cases.
These reforms, rarely referred to in mainstream media, have also had a severe impact on access to justice. By changing the way cases are financed and what fees can be collected from the party at fault, the reforms have had a material impact on the ability of law firms to help people suffering from different types of injustice.
I voiced my concern about this at the Westminster Legal Policy Forum on Wednesday. Certain case types have been more adversely affected by the reforms than others. A recent consultation of National Accident Helpline’s panel firms showed that some of the most vulnerable people are unable to secure justice as firms have to weigh up which cases remain commercially viable.
What was interesting from the Westminster forum was the general consensus on these issues expressed by a range of different stakeholders.
Despite efficiency improvements and other changes to overcome the pressure to deliver the same service at a lower cost, complex cases of lower value are presenting challenges. These include disease claims such as hearing loss and repetitive strain injury and clinical negligence claims including claims against drug companies. Outside personal injury, the reforms are having a significant impact on cases where individuals are seeking to pursue genuine claims arising from defective housing or mistreatment by the police.
Most worryingly, we are also seeing some cases involving injuries to children adversely affected. These cases are often costly and complex. The additional procedures in cases involving children make them more expensive to run. There is also a concern that judges may refuse to permit solicitors to make charges from compensation awarded. Furthermore, very serious cases involving children may also be affected as solicitors are unable to take success fees from future losses, which form the majority of awards in cases involving children. All in all, a combination of factors is making the commercial viability of children’s cases challenging for firms.
"We remain committed to supporting genuine accident victims and ensuring that the most vulnerable groups can access justice, despite the challenges created by the Jackson reforms."As LASPO and legal aid cuts continue to feature heavily in the media, let’s not forget the impact of the most significant changes to personal injury claims in over a decade. We must all continue to monitor the changes and act to ensure that the developing consequences do not impede the core principles of our civil justice system.