Rethinking access to justice
Brian Archer, President of The Law Society of Northern Ireland, discusses the importance of access to justice and the vital role solicitors and The Law Society are playing in shaping a modern justice system.
As the Law Society embarks on its second century, Archer reflects on the important role that solicitors play in Northern Ireland’s justice system and wider society.
“Solicitors are an integral part of our community, providing an important service to people often in very difficult circumstances. Whether it is criminal, family or civil court business or alternatives such as mediation, you will find solicitors working hard to deliver the best outcomes for their clients, so it is critical that those in government heed the voice of the solicitor profession when it comes to reforming our justice system; we have the practical from-the-coalface knowledge that can make a positive difference.”
Access to Justice
Archer highlights a worrying situation for vulnerable people in Northern Ireland seeking legal representation. “Access to Justice is the beating heart of the Law Society’s work, based on the simple but powerful belief that everyone should have access to the legal assistance they require and not just those who have the means to afford it. This means we need a sustainable legal aid budget which unfortunately hasn’t been the case in Northern Ireland for many years where structural under-funding has left the Department of Justice relying on in-year transfers from other parts of the public sector just to tread water.”
The Law Society, which represents 3,000 practising solicitors in Northern Ireland has repeatedly called on devolved and national government to look at these issues. “Early in 2022, the society was successful in challenging the Northern Ireland Executive’s draft budget which threatened to do generational harm to Access to Justice by imposing further cuts which could have put firms out of business and left communities in legal aid deserts, without access to representation.”
He adds: “In the current financial year, we have worked closely with the former Justice Minister Naomi Long MLA to secure additional funding into the system. This is welcome but we are also clear on the need for a sustainable long-term budget which would provide greater certainty.”
Access to Justice issues in this jurisdiction are not solely down to budget. “The number of solicitors carrying out legal aid work is shrinking, and it is increasingly difficult to attract young professionals into these areas of work. The only way to fix that is to pay realistic fees. I would also like to see Northern Ireland follow the Scottish Government’s example and provide support for trainees to go into legal aid practices.”
“The necessary closure of courts during Covid added to the backlog but Northern Ireland already had some of the worst delays of any part of the United Kingdom before the pandemic hit. This has a huge impact on victims in particular. Sexual offence cases are taking on average two years to complete, which is not acceptable.”
Need for reform
Archer expresses frustration at the political instability which is holding back progress on justice issues. “The Law Society is never party-political, but it is frustrating for our members who see these issues first-hand when we do not have Executive Ministers in place to address them.” He sees a need for radical reform of the justice system: “We are all aware of the current issues with the health system. Under the radar, the justice system is seeing many of the same issues. Delays across the system are rife, we have a dedicated but stretched and fatigued workforce, and we are also seeing the impact of historical under-investment.”
This is apparent in the delays in our courts, which Archer, a Deputy District Judge, is all too familiar with. “Obviously, the necessary closure of courts during Covid added to the backlog but Northern Ireland already had some of the worst delays of any part of the United Kingdom before the pandemic hit. This has a huge impact on victims in particular. Sexual offence cases are taking on average two years to complete, which is not acceptable.”
Archer believes there is the potential to make improvements and points to the resilience and creativity of those involved in delivering justice through the pandemic as reasons for hope.
“Solicitors were key workers through the pandemic as the majority did not stop working. They had to adapt quickly to things like hybrid working and online courts and come up with creative solutions to keep serving their clients. The scale of digital change in such a short space of time was genuinely remarkable. That demonstrates there is the will and the ability from the legal profession to deliver a truly modern Justice system that Northern Ireland deserves.”
Archer and his colleagues at the Law Society plan to be a constructive voice in the justice system in 2023 and beyond. “Continuing to do the same as we have always done is not going to deliver the improvement that is needed. We will be lobbying strongly for genuine innovation and modernisation of the system. Last year the Society published the Justice Agenda 2022 which set out justice priorities for the political parties ahead of the Assembly election. Later this year we will be building on this and bringing forward a detailed roadmap for a modern, effective Justice system. I would urge those in government to listen to the profession and to be as ambitious as we are.”