This is part 2 in our article series "How has Covid-19 affected access to justice?"

A decade of decline

Underinvestment in our justice system is nothing new. Over the past decade, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has seen cuts as severe as almost any other government department.

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The programme of austerity introduced after the financial crisis in 2008, saw the closure of many court buildings, widespread dilapidation of those still in operation and significant cuts to the budget and availability of Legal Aid.

Even before the passage and implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) in 2013, government expenditure on legal aid was already in decline, but the past decade saw this continue, reducing legal aid spending by roughly a third.

Legal Aid is no longer an option

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Where Legal Aid once provided access to justice for many who otherwise could not have afforded it, now it is only available in very few, specific types of case.

The gulf between the issues that members of the public believe Legal Aid should and is available for, and what it actually covers has widened.

Has ownership of legal protection increased?

Looking at this deterioration in our justice system, it is easy to see why the public’s belief in the accessibility of justice is not high.

The Legal Needs of Individuals in England and Wales study uses a series of nine questions to measure the perceived accessibility of justice. The results show that less than a quarter of respondents think that justice is easy to access.

Given such sentiment, it’s equally easy to accept that the number of people reporting ownership of legal expenses insurance products is increasing. The FCA’s Financial Lives 2020 survey indicates that 29 per cent of UK adults held some sort of legal protection product, a huge increase on the 17 per cent that claimed to hold such a product in 2017.

While there is some evidence of growth in product ownership, the increase seems unlikely over such a short period and does not tally with other data gathered within the sector. This difference is possibly the result of subtle changes in methodology but also of efforts the insurance industry has made to increase awareness of ancillary products, such as legal protection.

A global perspective

If there were any doubt that access to justice has indeed diminished in the UK or that the decline was inevitable in the context of a massive global recession, our steady descent in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index certainly suggests otherwise.

The 2020 report, which now ranks some 128 countries after scoring them for criteria as diverse as ‘fundamental rights’ and ‘regulatory enforcement’, saw the UK slip another place to 13th, leapfrogged by countries such Canada, Australia and Estonia, over the past 5 years.

The category in which the UK achieves the lowest score is Civil Justice, and it comes as little surprise that our lowest individual score out of all 44 detailed ratings, and the one that sits furthest below our peers is for the ‘accessibility and affordability’ of civil justice.

While the pandemic has disrupted justice all over the world, it has hard to imagine that the UK will not full further, when World Justice Project publishes its 2021 report.

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

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