It already seems trite to suggest that 2020 transformed almost everything in our world.

The most obvious shifts, in health, transportation, the workplace and education have been enormous and are clear for all to see. But every aspect of life has been touched by the pandemic in numerous ways, and many are far less obvious to all but those who work in them.

The impact that the pandemic has had on our justice system, has been as seismic as anywhere else in society and will take as long as any other to recover.

For people who have little day-to-day interface with it, talk of “the justice system” typically brings to mind our criminal courts, prisons and perhaps the major civil litigation that might make the news headlines. As such, its inadequacies can seem somewhat remote from most people’s lives.

However, important and sometimes poorly served as the victims of crime may be, they are far outnumbered by those who come into the justice system for other reasons.

Hundreds of thousands of businesses and their employees have cause to use the employment tribunal system each year, not to mention the various other tribunals. Even more people rely on the other branches of the civil justice system to resolve contract, family or property matters, to settle disputes over injuries and recover unpaid debts.

These wheels of justice do indeed turn slowly, and often with good reason. Over the past year, however, some have virtually ground to a halt.

The picture before the pandemic

When we come to assess the impact that Covid-19 has had on access to justice, once the pandemic has receded, we won’t struggle for sources to help establish the ‘before’ picture. Some timely and authoritative studies were released in the months immediately before we all locked down.

The FCA’s Financial Lives 2020 survey only touches on the legal world, but provides a very broad picture of the financial situations of people in the UK, as we approached the end of a decade. It offers direct comparison with the first study of its kind, released in 2017, and has been updated by a supplemental study, conducted in October to examine the impact of Covid-19 specifically.

Just as the pandemic broke in the UK, the Legal Services Board released the findings of its own survey into the Legal Needs of Individuals in England and Wales. This is also a very large study, based on responses gathered in 2019, and revealed that almost two thirds of individuals experienced some sort of legal issue over the previous four years.

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Finally, for a global perspective, we can look at the annual Rule of Law Index, a huge study produced every year by the World Justice Project, which compares various aspects of more than one hundred national jurisdictions around the world.

The justice crisis before Covid-19

The UK justice system is used to being taken for granted. While individual cases may grab the public attention from time to time, the state of our judicial institutions is rarely the subject of much discussion beyond their own walls. Our system of justice is, at the same time, revered around the world but largely neglected here at home.

The recent budget report, published in March, offers a good illustration. Of 107 pages detailing how the government will allocate spending, address the impact of Covid-19 and start recouping some of the huge sums invested to date, justice was covered in just one, very short paragraph; fewer than 40 words describing funding allocated last year, most of which has already been spent.

Whatever money is allocated to address the impact the pandemic has had on justice, it will not reverse the years of decline that preceded 2020. The number of court and tribunal buildings that have closed, the time that parties have to wait for a hearing and the huge cuts to Legal Aid and the wider Ministry of Justice budget, have all taken their toll.

Access to justice has become more difficult and more expensive to achieve, so it is not surprising that insured legal protection solutions are becoming increasingly popular.

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Disclaimer - all information in this article was correct at time of publishing.

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