“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy”
Our God has revealed Himself to be a God who loves justice, as we see in Isaiah 61:8. He encourages His people to act justly, care for the poor and be a voice for the voiceless. However, any notion of justice both demands and assumes an ability to access justice, and especially the institutions which ensure it. This central concept is intrinsic to the rule of law, which is only effective when all members of society can enjoy its protection. Without access to justice the rule of law becomes a mere abstract idea.
In that light, access to justice for all in society should be a fundamental concern for Christians. There are differing perspectives across the political parties on the most effective means of addressing this challenging issue, but it is incumbent upon us to recognise that when access to justice is potentially lacking, the life-chances of the poorest and most vulnerable diminish. This in turn has practical implications for our society as a whole: the rule of law is undermined if any individual cannot get a fair hearing in the courts.
Recent reforms have led to growing concern over areas in our national life where there is little or no provision for legal aid. Such areas currently include divorce, clinical negligence, housing, immigration, education, employment law and welfare appeals.
The majority (60 per cent) of those disabled welfare claimants who manage to appeal their Personal Independence Payment (PIP) decisions – without any right to legal assistance – are reportedly successful.
Individuals of sufficient means often find themselves having to fund their own legal defence against the state in criminal proceedings irrespective of the result – a policy that has been exemplified by a recent high profile case which led to a wider debate around how such cases are handled.
Proposed changes to the rules regarding the definition of and recovery of costs for whiplash injuries may result in large numbers of individuals being left to litigate their own personal injury cases against represented insurance companies.
Finally, the introduction of fees has resulted in a 79 per cent drop in employment tribunal claims. Despite a remission system for those of modest means, an individual who felt they have been a victim of unfair dismissal or discrimination may have to find over £1,000 to pursue any claim, independent of legal costs.
A society in which disparity of financial wealth and power leads to injustice is clearly of concern to Christians. Proverbs 21:13 instructs us to ensure the claims of the poor are heard, and Leviticus 19:15 reminds us that justice demands impartiality: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great but judge your neighbour fairly”. To manage this tension, access to justice, by means of affordable, accessible legal representation helps achieve equality before the law, which is fundamental to the administration of justice.
The three largest parties have highlighted this in different ways. In their manifesto, Labour pledge to reinstate legal aid entitlements and reform the treatment of victims of domestic violence and abuse. They also plan to reverse employment tribunal fees. The Liberal Democrats also pledge to reverse court and tribunal fees, and review means of raising funds for legal aid. The Conservatives promise to improve the family courts specifically, looking at how they can do more to support families. All three parties pledge to look at modernising the courts.
It remains for us, as Christians, to pursue justice in this area. This means asking our political parties how they will seek to achieve access to justice within the real financial constraints that they face. But it also means asking ourselves how we might stand in the gap as individuals. In both of these ways, we can seek to model Christ, the personification of perfect justice who on that glorious, forthcoming day will end all injustice and usher in the fullness of his kingdom of which there will be no end.