Access to Justice
The Report notes that “Equality before the law is a fundamental principle in a democratic state. To achieve it, there must be equal access to justice”. The Working Group was concerned with what barriers are in place, what then is needed to improve access to justice and a discussion of unmet legal needs. There is an acknowledgement that “the range of issues is wide and potential improvement requires action across many strands”.
Access to justice is a basic human right, however in order to achieve equality of access, there must be a balance of power on both sides. In a legal context, the balance of power almost always rests with those who can afford counsel. Redressing this balance requires the availability of free and low-cost legal services to those who need the advice of a qualified solicitor or barrister but who cannot afford the costs associated with it.
The Report makes reference to ‘clustered injustices’. For example, research on the cost of delivering access to justice and the related costs of not doing so from Professor Trevor Farrow noted that experiencing one problem can lead to multiple problems. And that the more problems one had, the increased likelihood of having even more problems to contend with. He “referred to a number of predictive variables, such as age, disability, number of children, income and gender”. His study also found that justiciable problems were a trigger for health and social problems. Dr. Tricia Keilthy, Head of Social Justice and Policy at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, reported in one of the workshops that many of the issues that present for them such as “energy poverty, utility arrears, education costs, and food poverty, what is often in the background are legal issues, involving family law, housing issues, domestic violence, and debt”.