Everyone should have the ability to understand and to access the law. The legal system of England and Wales takes pride the quality of its judiciary and seeks to ensure that everyone is equal before the courts.
In a recent public lecture, lawyers and law professors explained how law can be used as a tool by anyone. It can be applied in ways that can empower people and help them to solve complex problems, it can also be used to prevent disputes getting out of hand or to apply pressure for social change or to obtain justice. This doesn’t seem entirely realistic: ‘Anyone’ can research the law if they are equipped with access to a case law database for a small fee, ‘anyone’ can decipher statute if they have the right education and familiarity with legalese. ‘Anyone’ could use the law as a tool provided they know how to access the law and have the time and expertise to do so.
Although the law does not necessarily ensure fair and just outcomes, it can be used as a tool to challenge unfair circumstances. Decisions are not always black and white, and in some areas, law simply provides a starting point for relationships and transactions between people. The law is more of a scaffolding for our interactions, it helps us to lay down rules on how we behave and how we do business in society. If the general public aren’t able to understand the law, we limit its use as a structural tool for society.
Appointing a lawyer to decipher decisions or statute should not be prerequisite, it should be a choice. Of course looking up legal issues is very time-consuming, however it shouldn’t be written and recorded in a way that intimidates and confuses those who have neither studied nor worked in a legal environment. Most important decisions are only available to read in full on legal databases for which you must pay and subscribe. Not only lay-people, but also foreign legal professionals are often on the wrong side of the paywall: a French law professor, writing an article on comparitive criminal law, was recently reduced to asking me to look up a legal decision in the database for her.
It is not only the subscription based databases or the structure of the legal profession that are a barrier, but also the language in which the law is written and the lack of support for the average person to help them to understand the law. Legal aid cuts are going to make this an even bigger problem, lawyer’s fees being too high for many people seeking legal advice. Many are put off by the high fees and the unapproachable image of the stereotypical lawyer.
The changes to legal aid which seem increasingly inevitable, will put pressure on the already overflowing law centres and citizens advice bureaus. Providing low-cost advice and guidance to the law could be hugely helpful in coming to terms with the changing legal climate – making the law more accessible.
Will England and Wales become a two-tier society where those who can afford legal advice are able to intimidate those who cannot? The upcoming cuts to legal aid must not lead to a legal system that fails those who cannot pay.