Charting a Course for Progress - a 21st Century Justice System
As we enter into a new year, it feels timely to reflect on the ‘Proposals for a 21st Century Justice System’ set out in the Law Society's Green Paper. The Law Society's proposals to "fix the civil justice system" are a step in the right direction to improve access to justice for individuals on low incomes.
The Green Paper outlines several practical, affordable and incremental reforms that would not only improve access to justice but could save the justice system millions of pounds and bring wider benefits to the economy and society. The proposals include a one-stop shop online diagnostic tool (the ‘Solutions Explorer'), reforms to strengthen the ombudsman landscape, and options to make legal services more affordable.
However, the benefits that a single trusted portal could deliver for the public will not be realised unless there is also broad reform of the ombudsman / ‘Non-Court Dispute Resolution’ landscape. Without that reform, the key benefit of a ‘Solutions Explorer’ would simply be to inform individuals on low incomes more quickly and more accurately of the unsatisfactory options they have.
Effective reform requires a three-pronged approach. First, there needs to be a review of gaps in redress that vulnerable people in society are falling into, and how best to close them. Second, there needs to be an ambitious program of education to raise awareness and improve access to justice. Finally, there needs to be a central point for leading Ombudsman policy within the government to galvanize action.
Currently, there are 22 Ombudsman schemes in the UK, with varying coverage across the four nations. The haphazard way in which ombudsman schemes and other redress bodies have been created has resulted in multiple ‘Non-Court Dispute Resolution’ bodies where there could be one unified service, and huge gaps in redress and access to justice in several areas.
To ensure access to redress is simple and straightforward, there should be a single Ombudsman within a sector, and there should be increased harmonization of powers and processes between Ombudsman schemes in different sectors. New Ombudsman schemes should not be created where the role could be appropriately fulfilled by an existing Ombudsman, and existing Ombudsman schemes should be rationalized where this is in the interests of the public.
The Green Paper highlights the work underway in some areas to bring ombudsman schemes together, and we welcome the in-principal commitment from the Parliamentary & Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) and the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) to bring their jurisdictions together under a single new (UK/England) Public Service Ombudsman. We also welcome the intention expressed by the UK Government not to create a new ombudsman body for the private rented sector, but rather to expand the jurisdiction of the existing Housing Ombudsman. And we welcome the UK Government’s direction of travel to replace the eight existing Non-Court Dispute Resolution bodies in the gambling sector with a single Ombudsman.
However, we also recognize that drawing the jurisdiction of an Ombudsman can be a complex and challenging task and we wholeheartedly support the recommendation in the Green Paper that any rationalization of existing Ombudsman schemes should not take place without a rigorous analysis of the gaps and overlaps in the existing system.
We look forward to working with the Law Society and other stakeholders in the coming months to further develop the proposals - by working together, we can create a 21st century justice system that is more accessible, inclusive and fair for all.
You can read our full response here