Any person thinking about taking their case to court should be able to see a lawyer without cost at least once, according to an opinion poll conducted as part of work on the public perception of justice.
The research by Citizens Advice  said that the increased restrictions on legal aid were discouraging people from accessing the courts at all.
The findings of how citizens experience the justice system – which involved a YouGov survey of 2,025 people and feedback from Citizens Advice staff – found that 68% of respondents would not know whether to proceed with a case if they could not talk to a lawyer for advice.
“This lack of advice at the first stage of the process risks an increase in the number of people with legitimate grievances leaving their problem unresolved as well as an increase in the number of people unwittingly spending their time, energy and money on going to court with a meritless case,” it said.
Some 71% of people said that, without being able to afford a lawyer, they might think twice about taking a case to court by themselves.
The research said: “This poses important questions about access to justice. Advice at the beginning of the process is vital in ensuring people with problems are able to solve them. In fact, when asked to rank what support would be most useful, by far the most popular choice was that everybody, regardless of their income, should be able to see a lawyer without cost at least once.”
The research found that the majority of respondents were positive about being able to understand court processes, and most people have an expectation they would be treated well.
“Yet people have a range of serious concerns about the practical, professional and emotional support that would be available if they were to need it. Many have doubts that they’d be able to access legal representation, but they also wouldn’t feel confident representing themselves in court, meaning that too many people would give up on trying to solve their problems at all.
“Overall, only two in five (39%) people feel that the justice system works well for citizens.”
It also found a “notable perception” that the system worked better for the affluent – 68% of people agreed that you needed to be rich to afford to pursue justice and exercise your rights and only 17% believed it was easy for people on low incomes to do so. Those in the highest income bracket were almost twice as likely as those in the lowest to expect a fair outcome.
Most people (72%) agreed that ‘trying to get justice can sometimes not be worth it, because of the emotional drain and financial costs’. Only 6% of people disagree with this sentiment.
The research said that because of perceptions that support and advice was lacking, and because of negative past experiences, people were choosing to give up on solving their problems.
“We are seeing this in practice in local Citizens Advice offices. Almost four in five staff and volunteers in the Citizens Advice network report having seen an increase in the number of clients choosing not to follow up their issues at all.
“It is clear, overall, that the court system is not considered to be the effective public service that it could be.”
The research marks the start of a Citizens Advice programme of work exploring people’s experience of the justice system.