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By Tom Laidlaw
I was at the Attorney General’s Student Pro Bono Awards last week celebrating all of the innovative and useful work that law students and law schools were engaging in to support access to justice and their local communities through pro bono activities.
It is also interesting to be in the room for an Awards ceremony hosted by a Conservative Attorney General. Dominic Grieve QC, MP clearly values and appreciates all of the work that gets done in this way, acknowledges that it should not replace government support for people to access legal services but also has to toe the government line that everyone has to take a fair share of the cuts in government expenditure.
A number of the shortlisted projects are in place to try and mitigate the impact of these cuts in legal services, such as the winner of the Best New Student Pro Bono Activity – the Community Legal Helpdesk at the University of Exeter. That service is based at Exeter County Court, runs three mornings a week and its function is “… to inform, guide and to triage legal advice. The main work of the Helpdesk is therefore to offer assistance with the completion of forms; explain court procedures; to act as ‘Mckenzie Friends’ or assist with court hearings and to signpost other forms of legal advice and help as necessary”.
The probable rise of litigants in person is clearly now worrying many people at the sharp-end of delivering legal services. As you may be aware, Sir Alan Ward made his feelings plain in the opening paragraphs of his recent judgment in Wright v Michael Wright Supplies Ltd & Anor  EWCA Civ 234 (27 March 2013) “Two problems in particular are revealed. The first is how to bring order to the chaos which litigants in person invariably – and wholly understandably – manage to create in putting forward their claims and defences… My second concern is that the case shows it is not possible to shift intransigent parties off the trial track onto the parallel track of mediation. Both tracks are intended to meet the modern day demands of civil justice. The raison d’être (or do I simply mean excuse?) of the Ministry of Justice for withdrawing legal aid from swathes of litigation is that mediation is a proper alternative which should be tried and exhausted before finally resorting to a trial of the issues.”
Richard Moorhead and Roger Smith have both written blogs about this issue and Roger Smith also reviewed the Dutch government’s “Legal Aid Board” website, Rechtwijzer, which is designed to help litigants through a number of disputes including consumer and relationship breakup. A Roger says: “The site has been established within the context of overall Dutch policy on the resolution of disputes. This is to encourage self-help and mediated settlement in preference to recourse to lawyers and the courts.”
In my mind this raises a question of what can be done in practice to improve the administration of justice in this new environment. Technology should surely have a place in improving litigants’ journey through the justice system and help those that administer it to do so more effectively. Justice should become more “self-service” like a supermarket with litigants working through some form of online dispute resolution service that helps create standardised court documents for them that they then present at their dispute. An integrated service also allows the courts to receive those documents ahead of the litigant arriving in court and provide a mechanism for asking more questions or for further information before that court appearance.
While many disputes differ on the facts, the legal process that they have to follow will be the same. Lawyers can already create commercial precedents by using Smart drafting technology and answering a range of questions and following decision trees rather than drafting from scratch. This same technology can be applied to contentious work in the same way to speed up and simplify the litigation process. In his blog post about Rechtwijzer, Roger Smith also refers to NHS Direct and its triage helpline. Perhaps a UK version of Rechtwijzer coupled with a legal helpline could make a real difference to the administration of justice in the future.
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