We live in an age where we are constantly exposed to our legal system in one way or another. It is difficult to navigate the internet without having to agree to a set of terms, watch TV without seeing a courtroom drama, or even speak with a friend or colleague without hearing about a dispute they are involved in.
In many examples, you are often left with the impression that the parties involved felt overwhelmed by the system, let down by the result, or that the entire process was not worth the investment. These feeling and attitudes are inevitable outcomes of most forms of dispute resolution. In most instances, one side will come out victorious, whilst the other will be subject to a less favourable outcome.
In a later blog, we will consider some of the ways businesses can minimise risk and avoid exposure to legal disputes. Before we do so, we will cover some forthcoming reforms to the UK legal system, and how they may improve access to justice for small businesses.
Reforms to the justice system
Improving access to justice has been a recurring and long-standing theme amongst policy makers. However, recent changes can be seen as contrary to this drive for reform.
Last year, we saw the largest increase in civil court fees (the law governing relationships between private parties). Some of the fees payable for starting a claim in the courts raised by 620%. This change, coupled with the uncertainty that even if you win, you may never even receive the award or remedy you are seeking, would make access to justice almost impossible for many individuals and small businesses.
Well, there remains a glimmer of light in this difficult time for legal justice.
Earlier this month, Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunal Service (HMCTS) released a publication outlining some key reforms to the justice system (Justice matters: How our change programme will make services better for everyone who uses them). If, even a subset of the changes proposed in this publication are implemented, they will provide much needed reform for sole traders and small businesses wishing to enforce their rights before the UK courts.
“Our justice system matters – for every citizen and for the role we play in the world. In just a few short years we will have revolutionised how justice is administered for the people at its heart. The experience will be one where everyone who uses the courts and tribunals feels that they’ve been treated swiftly, fairly and with respect.”
This report is not your typically long, monotonous, endless rhetoric. Instead, a user-focused, clear and succinct infographic highlighting some of the key reforms proposed. We hope that this approach will be taken with future government publications, and more generally, a reflection of how all public services will be developed moving forwards.
The guiding principles
The overriding principles which govern the way legal matters are handled by the courts have not conceptually changed. The courts continue to promote a legal system which is just, proportionate and accessible to everyone. Although in principle these are simple concepts, putting them into practice has always been a challenge. In the world of business, larger organisations who possess greater resources inevitably have greater control over cases, the way in which they are handled and progressed, and ultimately the outcome. This can put many smaller businesses at a disadvantage, and can act as a deterrent to those wishing to enforce their legal rights.
So how do the proposed reforms intend to improve access to justice, further the guiding principles, and make our legal services better for everyone who uses them?
The plan is simple. Create a contemporised justice system which is consistent with the way we currently live our lives. By understanding how the world works, how individuals manage their daily lives, and how businesses operate across almost every industry or sector, we begin to appreciate just how far behind the times the current legal system remains.
“But justice is seen as a long and elaborate process. One that’s played out in old, austere courtrooms, it’s not fast, or efficient, or designed around the people who use it – all the things you would expect from a modern service.”
This statement demonstrates that the focus of the reforms is to address the way in which the current court system is perceived. Large-scale investment will be used to improve the systems and processes required to deliver justice through the UK courts. Going digital, minimising paper handling, and improving collaboration between organisations appear to be at the heart of the £1billion investment. In light of the fee changes made last year, such significant investment is certainly expected.
The next focus is on creating a customer-driven legal system which is predictable and easy to understand. A statement which has been made endless times, and notoriously difficult to put into practice. The legal system is inherently difficult for most individuals, hence the need for legal expertise and support throughout the entire process. This requirement will never subside; however, availability of resources will ensure that businesses have access to the know-how they require to avoid disputes, or otherwise be aware of the steps required to commence or defend an action should they need to.
In addition to improving the availability of legal know-how, the courts themselves will also be subject to reform. Support via phone and web-chat, and certain aspects of legal proceedings being carried out by video-link are just some of the ways access to justice will be improved. We may also see court buildings opening later in the evening and on weekends, a positive step which favours many busy business owners.
The impact on small businesses
We should all welcome such investment into these services, regardless of whether you have previously been directly exposed to the UK legal system or courts. One focus of the reforms is to have a framework in place that evolves organically as times change, so we are never held ransom to systems or processes which are no longer fit-for-purpose.
We are confident these proposals, if and when implemented, will create a justice system which is truly accessible to all, and harmonious with the way in which we live our lives and manage our businesses. Most importantly, we hope this is a trend we will see occurring with all other public services that share the same shortcomings.
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