ESRC Seminar Series 2011-2013

Access to justice in an age of austerity: Time for proportionate responses

PI, Prof Ellie Palmer School of Law, Human Rights Centre
CI, Dr Tom Cornford, School of Law

The last decade began with ambitious proposals to transform the justice system. As in other publicly funded services, reforms have been driven by concerns of efficiency; market principles have been introduced for the commissioning of legal services and principles of 'best value' applied to justify the allocation of resources across sectors.

However, there are growing concerns among legal professions, pressure groups and charities about the level of unmet need for appropriate legal services, especially for socially disadvantaged individuals and groups.

Austerity measures have exacerbated these problems. Coalition plans for sweeping reforms of legal aid have coincided with increased pressures on courts, tribunals and advice agencies to address problems of debt, unemployment, mental health and family crisis precipitated by the economic downturn.

Against this background, a series of five themed seminars will examine fundamental questions about "access to justice" - whether and the extent to which citizens who believe they have suffered a legal wrong are able to gain appropriate redress. The seminars will bring together a core group of up to forty discussants – high level officials from government and the devolved administrations, the judiciary, the legal professions, officials tasked with providing legal advice and assistance, NGOs and academics - to discuss proportionate responses to the present crisis in legal services.

Seminar 1: Access to justice in theory and practice

The first seminar will introduce and develop key themes and questions to be explored ‘in context’ in subsequent seminars. Session 1 will examine the case for publicly funded legal services in a liberal democracy, from the perspective of political theory and ideas about ‘justice’ more generally. The second session is on human rights. This session will make a compelling case for legal aid – although not how much we should have. In the third session Professor Alan Paterson will address issues of prioritization, drawing on global developments and Professor Richard Susskind will give a complementary paper - asking how we should prioritise legal aid spending to tackle the latent legal market and harness technology.

Seminar 2: Revaluing a market based approach to legal services

Session 1 will look in greater detail at modes of legal service delivery, drawing on the expertise of researchers and practitioners on both sides of the Scottish border. Session 2 will explore the implications of the Coalition’s sweeping reform of legal aid. In the third session, Theresa Perchard, Director of Policy at the Citizens Advice Bureau and Julie Bishop, Director of the Law Centres Federation will consider the impact of austerity on the accessibility of ‘justice’ for families in debt, children and other vulnerable service users living in poverty.

Seminars 3 and 4: Pressure points on the justice system

Seminars 3 and 4 will be structured around pressure points on the justice system – such as family, social security, children, debt, housing, employment and mental health. One of the aims of the seminars is to identify best evidence-based research in these areas. The seminars will also examine the impact of the economic crisis on the administration of the justice system - tribunals, county courts and administrative law courts.

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Funded by E.S.R.C