Access to justice, including fair trials – UK Government assessment
The UK Government has taken important steps to improve victim support and access to legal aid, including the Victims’ Code coming into force. However, issues remain around the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 on access to justice in England and Wales. There is evidence of barriers for disabled people to access the justice system, and court modernisation – including the rapid roll-out of remote hearings – might negatively affect participation for certain groups. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has placed the court system and legal advice sector under significant additional strain, including by exacerbating existing case backlogs, though action has been set out to support recovery.
- Despite changes to improve access to legal aid, issues remain around the impact of LASPO, particularly for those with certain protected characteristics. Issues include the removal or reduced availability of civil legal aid, inaccessibility of the exceptional case funding scheme, the financial eligibility thresholds for legal aid, and unnecessary barriers to justice in discrimination claims.
- A 2019 report by the Commission on Justice in Wales concluded that proper access to justice is not available in Wales due to legal aid cuts under LASPO.
- The UK Government plans to increase selected court fees in line with inflation, though many respondents to a consultation on these plans noted that increases could negatively impact access to justice.
- There is evidence that the needs of disabled defendants with certain impairments are not being met in the criminal justice system. There are concerns in England and Wales that aspects of the court reform programme, particularly the move to remote hearings and online processes, could make it difficult for certain disabled defendants to take part in justice processes and also put older people at a disadvantage.
- There are risks that court closures under the reform programme might particularly disadvantage disabled people, women with the protected characteristic of pregnancy and maternity, and carers.
- Provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seek to expand the use of ‘live link’ in criminal proceedings but existing issues have not yet been addressed, including around data collection and screening for communication needs.
- The use of video and telephone hearings to support the court system expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic before their impact had been fully evaluated or any unintended negative effects mitigated.
- The move to online advice services during the COVID-19 pandemic potentially disadvantages groups that are digitally excluded.
- Advice organisations and the legal aid sector face financial challenges, while demand for free advice has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. The UK Government provided some funding for legal advice during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has placed the court system under unprecedented strain, increasing an already significant backlog of cases across civil and criminal courts. The UK Government’s recovery plan includes actions to maintain the system’s operation. However, delays have a negative impact on victims, witnesses and defendants, and on the outcome of cases.
- The Victims’ Code sets out standards to support people who have been victims of crime and the commitment to a Victims’ Law – if implemented – would help to enforce these standards.
- Amendments to the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 improve protection for victims in civil and family courts.
- Provisions in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill could be used to restrict access to, and remedies from, successful judicial reviews, undermining access to justice.
Read more about the UK Government’s actions on access to justice, including fair trials.