Rights, first laid down in Magna Carta, count for nothing without access to justice

(This is the text of my Opinion column that first appeared in the Brighton Argus on 18th June 2015)

This week sees the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.  Drafted by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, it sought to bring peace between a very unpopular King and some landed barons, promising to protect church rights, protection from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and placing limits on taxation.

While King John immediately reneged by getting Pope Innocent III to annul the agreement, it set in place many of the rights that, after subsequent struggles, we enjoy today.

While rights written down on a piece of paper are important, those rights count for little if they cannot be enforced through speedy and affordable access to justice.

When Liam Byrne left office he famously left a note that read: “I’m afraid that there is no money”.

It is joked that the outgoing Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, left a similar note saying: “There is no more justice”.

But behind many jokes there is some truth.  Under both the Coalition government and the previous Labour Government, access to justice has been eroded.  Community legal aid has been decimated with fewer areas of law remaining eligible for legal help.

For example, the number of housing cases BHT’s Brighton Advice Centre can take on has reduced from 1,450 to 590, this at the very time such advice and representation is most needed.

Britain has a legal system the envy of progressive thinkers around the world.  But as a nation we lose something when those on low and medium incomes are unable to access it.

(Postscript: BHT also has advice centres in Eastbourne and Hastings).

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2 thoughts on “Rights, first laid down in Magna Carta, count for nothing without access to justice

  1. In the 13th century, both before and after Magna Carta, the poor, although they had to represent themselves in court, at least had access to the justice system without a charge being imposed.

    In the 21st century, Kenneth Clarke – the urbane, jazz loving, one nation Tory- inadvertently (or maybe not; what do they care?) gave away the class based character of the legal aid cuts when in 2012 he told the International Bar Association: ‘What we mustn’t do is just leave untouched a system that has grown astonishingly, making the poor extremely litigious.’

    • Jazz didn’t love him though. When he bragged about being a friend of Ronnie Scott, Scott replied that he’d never met him and would probably cross the road to avoid him!

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