Access to justice in England and Wales continues to be severely hampered by budget cuts and political decisions made over a decade ago, according to a new report by the Bar Council released today.

Access denied: The state of the justice system in England and Wales in 2022’ reveals the current state of the courts, legal aid and law reform twelve years on from the court closures of the ‘court estates reform programme’ and ten years on from the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012, which significantly restricted access to civil legal aid.

The Bar Council is drawing on the evidence presented in the report to call on the Government not to make funding cuts to the justice system in the Autumn statement that will further restrict access to justice and cause additional problems in the years ahead.

The report combines data from the Bar Council’s Access to Justice dashboard with powerful testimony from barristers and other practitioners working in crime, civil, and family law who took part in a Justice Week workshop earlier this year.

The report paints a worrying picture of the current state of access to justice in England and Wales. Key findings include:

  • 239 courts closed since 2010 leaving clients extremely anxious that they won’t be able to get to their hearings
  • Cuts to legal aid funding having a catastrophic impact on the ability of people to access justice
  • A mixed experience of remote justice that requires further investigation
  • Crumbling court buildings that are not fit-for-purpose, including leaks, infestations, and a lack of basic facilities
  • An increase in litigants in person, due to reductions in the availability of civil legal aid, resulting in cases taking longer and costing more – the opposite of what LASPO set out to do
  • Barristers diversifying away from legal aid work due to workload pressures and poor remuneration, further reducing the capacity of the system
  • Worrying political attacks on the rule of law and anti-lawyer rhetoric that undermines confidence in the justice system and contributes to burnout and stress

To counter these issues, the report calls for adequate funding across the justice system and a greater focus on early intervention and diverting people away from the system.

The report also includes direct quotes from those who took part in the Justice Week workshop, providing important insight into the daily experiences of those working in the justice system:

On access to courts: “We have to remember that the people we represent do not have money by and large. The cost of travelling to court added an extra burden and the court does not keep any data on why people don’t turn up to the hearing. Anecdotally, people don’t show up as they can’t afford it.”

On the rule of law and political rhetoric: “We are in a serious moment for the rule of law in this country. It is breaking down, to the extent that it could lead to all sorts of things… people just challenging the most basic democratic system… All those things, we know we have the tools to try to tackle and push back, but it’s the language and discourse that has been building up about activist lawyers which is the most dangerous of all… It is a time to be scared.”

On funding cuts: All parties in this unusual, complex, bizarre situation are scared, anxious, angry. The judges are having to manage this. There is increased pressure on the Bar. We are doing more pro bono work, keeping the system afloat by assisting.”

On access to legal aid: “Prices rise, the cost of living is up, legal advice costs a lot. The threshold [for eligibility for legal aid] is quite high. Universal Credit is so low, people are expected to make it work on very little. There is a huge national crisis about the working poor.”

On litigants in person: “We hear from LiPs that the process looks like it should be straightforward and simple. When they get towards court, they find it is complex. It’s the horror of your life and your family’s life and you only have some leaflets to advise you.”

On barrister flight: “People love the job. However, it’s unsustainable – they can’t afford it. We’re losing a lot of talent.”

Launching the report, Mark Fenhalls KC, Chair of the Bar, said:

“Justice is a vital public service that has been starved of funding and political support over the last decade. The results are clear for anyone working in the sector – a system stripped of experience and expertise, systems and buildings that aren’t fit for purpose, and a tired and cynical workforce increasingly looking for a way out.

“This report comes at a critical time as the Government is due to announce billions of spending cuts in the Autumn statement. Through the evidence presented in this report, we make a special pleading that access to justice is properly recognised as a necessary pillar of a fair and just society. The improved funding that has been available in the last two years cannot now be reversed without causing irrevocable damage to this vital public service. 

“The consequences of cuts are not only a failing system, but one that ultimately costs more – both in terms of money and in human terms. The Government must commit to long-term planning and resourcing of the system to provide people with the legal redress to which they are entitled.”

The report will be discussed by a panel of experts at the Annual Bar and Young Bar Conference on Wednesday 23 November at 17:50 to 19:00 online. Mark Fenhalls KC will chair ‘Access denied: fixing our broken justice system’ with Amean Elgadhy (legal aid barrister of the year 2022), Carol Storer OBE (legal sector consultant), and Sam Townend KC (incoming Bar Council vice chair).