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The British judicial system is world-leading in its fairness, quality and transparency. It is also costly, inefficient and slow. When it works well, it ensures that the most vulnerable in society receive protection and redress; when it does not, it can lead to travesties of justice in both civil and criminal cases.

Critics of its present state like to point the finger at the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), which slashed the legal aid budget. In 2010-11, the Government spent £2.55bn on legal aid; in 2017-18 that figure had fallen to £1.62bn, a drop of over 36%. While it is true that there is less money in the judicial system now than before the Coalition Government’s reforms, this should not have to entail a concomitant fall in effectiveness.

The real issue is not the cuts to funding. It is that the British judicial system is poorly designed for the twenty-first century. Increasing legal aid might seem to be an easy way to remedy the inefficiencies of the system, but doing so would benefit lawyers most of all whilst not addressing the key problems facing the judicial system.

Courts continue to be largely incomprehensible and hostile to litigants-in-person – individuals who appear in court without legal representation – whose numbers have risen sharply since the passing of LASPO. Procedure is often arcane, the paperwork required is confusing, and litigants regularly report feeling intimidated and overwhelmed. This is exacerbated by the hostile adversarial setup of a courtroom, especially when a litigant-in-person is faced with a professional barrister.

Even where a litigant can get legal representation, they often find themselves trapped in a system which is slow-moving and expensive, particularly compared to our neighbours. Consider legal aid expenditure, which is a good proxy for the cost of the justice system overall. In 2019, the Netherlands will spend €444.4m on legal aid; France will spend €506.7m. Britain is forecast to spend €1.87bn, almost double both of those countries put together. Even per capita, France spends almost three and a half times less, whilst still retaining a robust and well-respected legal system.

What can be done about this? Firstly, courtroom procedure could be radically simplified in cases where one party is a litigant-in-person. This is not a controversial suggestion – senior judges have long called for it. Judges should invite conciseness and simplicity in submissions and should be able to waive elements of the Civil Procedure Rules upon mutual consent of the parties. In many cases, including in criminal ones, hearings can be conducted via video link; this should be more widely adopted, for reasons of both cost and convenience.

Even for a civil case to reach a courtroom, though, is symptomatic of a failure to provide effective justice. Few if any litigants wish to go through the headache and stress of litigation when alternative dispute resolution mechanisms exist. For civil disputes, community-based arbitration should be explored as an alternative to going to court. Such arbitration panels can often be better qualified to rule on local cases than judges; indeed, in criminal cases non-judicial magistrates have ruled on many cases for centuries.

The future of this sort of justice can be seen in British Columbia. Here, property disputes and small civil claims are routed through an online Civil Resolution Tribunal in which the entire process is conducted online and is mediated through part-time arbitrators rather than professional judges. Since its introduction, the Tribunal has been a resounding success – 79% of those using it for small claims disputes would recommend it – and its remit has been steadily expanded. British Columbia was cited by Professor Richard Susskind in his 2015 report recommending the implementation of a similar system in England and Wales. This is a much more effective way of improving access to affordable justice.

In considering the best way to spend finite resources upon the maintenance of justice, governments ought to recognise that the best way to do this is not to enrich the legal profession but to reduce the time and expense that individuals incur travelling through the legal system. British justice is rightly considered one of the finest in the world; but it is about time it was made more efficient and cost-effective so that it works better for the majority of British citizens.

David Verghese is a member of Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.