Adults in the UK are more likely to have had experience of a court case, than to smoke or have a mortgage. The justice system is a consumer service, but it is not one consumers are very satisfied with. Only 40% of people believe the justice system works well for citizens and unfortunately experience doesn’t necessarily improve that view. Two new studies by the Citizens Advice and by Hodge Jones & Allen solicitors make quite depressing reading.
Less than half those polled say they trust those working in the legal profession, and two thirds don’t think professional legal advice is an affordable option for ordinary people. But they are not happy do it without professional help either. Only 14% of people felt confident they could manage if they had to represent themselves in court alone, and three quarters of people feel the justice system is intimidating.
Underneath these statistics is the story of a service which people feel afraid of getting embroiled in. They see courts as difficult to navigate and not necessarily delivering a fair outcome. So people who have a choice about whether to go to court are presumably choosing not to. This should please the cash strapped courts service, but dismay those who see the law as one of the most powerful instruments for writing wrongs.
I have myself had a bad recent experience of the justice system. A dry cleaner shrunk some expensive curtains and refused to pay for a replacement. We took the owner to the small claims court. The forms were difficult to fill in and the process lengthy. When it did come to court, the owner did not turn up and, even though the court found in our favour, we still have no financial compensation. The whole process was a waste of our time and money and I wouldn’t lightly do it again. Yet no one has followed up to ask the outcome of our case – whether we got the money owed to us – nor what we think of the process.
Our justice system needs to be more responsive to users and potential users. Only through getting underneath why people are so negative about the system can it hope to improve. These are good surveys done by organisations which care deeply about access to justice. But we need more than ad-hoc surveys. The government should consistently monitor consumers’ views on the performance of the courts and of the justice system as a whole. As it stands, I’m not convinced the consumer is (as the government wishes) at the heart of the courts reform programme – mainly due to the lack of research and insight.