JUSTICE at 60

Known as the conscience of the legal profession, reforming charity JUSTICE is marking 60 years of shaping the legal landscape. By Andrea Coomber

In June, JUSTICE celebrated its 60th anniversary. 

Set up in 1957 by a group of eminent British jurists – and headed by former Nuremberg prosecutor Hartley Shawcross – JUSTICE was founded to ‘uphold and strengthen the principles of the rule of law… to assist in the administration of justice and in the preservation of the fundamental liberties of the individual’. I became the Director of JUSTICE four years ago and it is this mission that frames our work still.

Very few charities make it to 60, and even fewer have anywhere near the impact of JUSTICE. In the words of the Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas, our work has ‘shaped the legal landscape of this country’. So much of what we all take for granted in the legal system – the Ombudsman, the Judicial Appointments Commission, the CPS – were borne of JUSTICE’s recommendations over the years. JUSTICE campaigned for many years for the incorporation into UK law of the European Convention on Human Rights, was a driver of the Human Rights Act 1998 and was charged with training our judges on human rights upon its adoption. JUSTICE remains a lead intervener in the UK Supreme Court, where our third party interventions provide independent, expert material to assist the court in deciding cases.

Investigative work

For many people, JUSTICE will always be associated with the BBC television series Rough Justice and Channel Four’s Trial and Error. For our first 25 years, much of our work focused on securing the release of prisoners who had suffered miscarriages of justice. Partnering with television companies, JUSTICE’s work led to the release from prison of 18 people who had been wrongly convicted. At the same time, we were at the forefront of urging the creation of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which itself took over the mantel of challenging wrongful convictions 20 years ago.

Looking back over the years, JUSTICE has always been far-sighted and radical. And reading our early reports has become a bit of a guilty secret, for their lyrical approach and the way in which they capture times. For example in 1970, we published Privacy and the Law, which anticipated that technological developments – at the time ‘lasers and microchips’ – would mean that the State would soon be able to listen to our conversations, posing serious challenges for the law. The Litigant in Person, published in 1971, describes with devastating accuracy the lonely, fruitless experience of unrepresented people before the court, resonating ever more strongly all the time. Most of these reports have been scanned and can be read on our website.

Cross-party influence

The powers that be have always paid heed to JUSTICE’s recommendations, much of this borne of the way we work. JUSTICE has a membership of lawyers, currently numbering around 1,300. Our membership is drawn from across the professions, though is strongest at the Bar, where we have always enjoyed high levels of support. Our members, and the Council that advises our work, are cross-party, allowing us to influence political agendas behind the scenes. We work with justice leads from all parties, to ensure that these principles trump party politics when it comes to how ordinary people interact with the police and the courts. While we have a very small staff – only four lawyers at present – we draw on our members’ experience and insights to identify areas of the system which are antiquated, unfair or inefficient, and to imagine how they might work differently. In the latter respect our work is highly comparative, assisted by the fact that we are the UK section of the International Commission of Jurists.

And there are many things that could and should work differently, with our recent work giving a taste of the possibilities.

Recent work

It is well known that the last five years particularly have seen significant State retrenchment; funding for the justice system has been slashed, with legal aid cut significantly and the introduction of ‘enhanced’ court and tribunal fees. In the civil courts, this has meant that many people who previously would have qualified for legal aid, advice or representation, are faced with either representing themselves or being excluded from the system. At the same time, the vast majority of the population – ineligible for legal aid even before the cuts, and unable to afford a lawyer, or expose themselves to the costs risks – is already effectively excluded from the civil courts.

While JUSTICE has briefed – and will continue to brief – against cutbacks in legal aid, we also recognise that an exclusively adversarial justice system, built on the assumption that all parties are represented, is in trouble when very many people before it are not. The reality is that for many people who present at a county court for their civil matter, the first lawyer they speak to is the judge. This is obviously not how the system was meant to operate, and it results in an unedifying and confusing experience for the unrepresented party and a time-consuming and often frustrating process for the judge. And research shows us that the majority of people will just stay at home, and not take their good claims to or make their good defences in court, because they have to fend for themselves.

System change in the civil courts

In 2013, shortly after I began as Director of JUSTICE, we set up a working party to consider whether the adversarial process in the civil courts and tribunals was still fit for purpose, and whether system change might be desirable. Under the chairmanship of Sir Stanley Burnton, a group of eminent members – including Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC (Hon), Nigel Pleming QC, Professor Rosemary Hunter and Sir Paul Jenkins – looked at ways of dealing with the reality of unmet legal need in the civil courts and tribunals.

The resulting report of April 2015 proposed radical change. We recommended that rather than directly involving judges in the first instance, parties should be directed to a person – we called them a ‘Registrar’ – who works under the judge and could engage in a dialogue with the parties to assess their needs, their evidence, their expected outcomes etc. The Registrar would be empowered to mediate, engage in ‘early neutral evaluation’ or to refer the case on to a judge where cases were factually or legally complicated. Most cases are not. Our report also recommended that much, much more should be done online, dragging the outdated court system into the 21st century and moving us away from a system based entirely on people turning up to old buildings with supermarket bags full of bundles of papers.

At the start of the work I was told that it was pie-in-the-sky stuff, and there was no way the civil courts would be open to changing their procedures. Yet by the time we reported 18 months later, the environment had become much more enabling. With a reforming senior judiciary and a Ministry of Justice open to exploring how the system might be reformed, our report was embraced. Lord Justice Briggs’ review of the civil courts adopted our ‘Registrar’ model, as did Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service’s (HMCTS) Reform Programme, which has renamed them ‘Case Officers’. The call for more to be done online, made around the same time as Richard Susskind’s Online Dispute Resolution Report for the Civil Justice Council, has also been picked up. With an investment of almost £1bn from the Treasury in modernising our courts, JUSTICE’s work is underlining a new approach to dispute resolution in the civil courts. We are now following up with a new working party looking at how to ensure that all people, including the ‘digitally deprived’, can access justice in an online era.

Taking out the party-political sting

Critical to our success is that we consult and advise policy makers across all parties as our recommendations develop, allowing us to take the party-political sting out of justice system reform. Most of what we are working on deserves bipartisan support and JUSTICE’s membership and network enhance our influence in this respect.

The civil justice work is but one example. Our recent work on court reconfiguration and on reforming complex and lengthy criminal proceedings have similarly borne fruit. We wait to see whether our very recent Increasing Judicial Diversity report, of April this year, will have an impact on changing the demographics of our superior courts.

Current projects and funding

There is a lot more for us to do. We currently have working parties of our members looking at reforming immigration and asylum processes and the treatment of defendants with mental health problems in the criminal justice system, and we will soon begin work on the handling of sexual offences cases. With more resources we could do even more. Parallel to this, we will continue to scrutinise legislation and to work with the political parties to strengthen their understanding of good law and good process. The Bar Council continues to be a key partner for us, particularly in our parliamentary work.

The struggle for JUSTICE is not the work, but keeping a small charity afloat, which is frankly the reason that so few charities make it to 60 years. We receive some support from trusts and foundations, but most of our funding comes from members and supporters who – individually and corporately – sign up to support JUSTICE. Three years ago we launched an appeal, which has allowed us to more than double our legal staff and to increase our impact. We are also lucky enough to own our own building, which provides valuable rental income and saves us from the vagaries of the London property market. But we still need to raise around £700,000 a year to keep the charity ticking over. We would love to hear from barristers and chambers interested in becoming involved in our work; the more perspectives from practice we can incorporate and the more experiences we can capture, the stronger it will be.

Contributor Andrea Coomber is Director of JUSTICE

HOW THE BAR CAN GET INVOLVED

You can support JUSTICE by joining as an individual (£70 a year) or as a Chambers (£750 a year), or by becoming a Friend of JUSTICE (for just £20 a month). Beyond the warm glow of supporting JUSTICE, membership provides a gateway to contribute to JUSTICE’s work by: serving on law reform working parties; speaking at JUSTICE meetings and conferences; representing JUSTICE before superior courts; providing legal research and drafting assistance to JUSTICE’s consultation and Bill responses before Parliament; and attending members’ only events. JUSTICE is also keen to identify individuals and Chambers to join The JUSTICE60, a small group of prized supporters who together are transforming JUSTICE’s finances and ability to deliver work. For more information please visit www.justice.org.uk

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Andrea Coomber

Andrea became the Director of JUSTICE in February 2013, having served as the Legal Director at INTERIGHTS.An Australian qualified as a barrister and solicitor, Andrea is an Honorary Master of the Bench of Middle Temple.