The public believes that the legal system should be modernised faster than is happening at present, with many feeling “the justice system has retained tradition at the expense of efficiency”, new research has found.
Education about the law and legal process, including teaching it to school children, and simplifying legal language were also keys to improving access to justice, it said.
The findings came in a report commissioned by London law firm Hodge Jones & Allen, Unjust Kingdom – UK perceptions of the legal and justice system, published yesterday. More than 2,100 people were surveyed by opinion pollsters Populus in October 2015.
The results were compared to a survey of lawyers conducted last year.
On general perceptions of the justice system, 81% of the public described it as intimidating and 87% of legal professionals agreed.
Lawyers were also ahead of the public in believing that the justice system was accessible only to the privileged few. While just over half of people surveyed said the system was not accessible to all, 84% of the professionals said this was the case.
But three-quarters of the public who expressed a view said wealth was a greater factor in accessing justice than it used to be. Among legal professionals, 87% shared the view. Almost as many pinpointed court fees as responsible for making it harder for people to bring cases to court.
It was on knowledge of legal process that the views of the public were most revealing. As well as finding the system intimidating, more than seven out of ten believed ordinary people had little understanding of how the law works, and just a quarter of young people under 24 felt they would know what to do if they were faced with a “legal situation”.
More than 80% of those who expressed a view said that simplifying the technical language of legal professionals would help improve access.
A similar proportion said better education about the legal system would help. Seven out of ten said an understanding of the law and the legal process should be taught in primary and secondary schools. Around the same proportion of lawyers agreed that law should be a part of young people’s education.
But ordinary people and lawyers diverged on the question of whether aspiring to a career in the law was wise. While 71% of people said they would be proud if a child or young relative did so, just 16% of lawyers said they would recommend a career in the legal sector.
On the question of whether the legal system should be modernised faster than at present, seven out of ten who expressed a view felt it should be. Half of the public felt “the justice system has retained tradition at the expense of efficiency” – a view shared by just 17% of legal professionals.
Around seven out of ten people who expressed a view were favourable towards a greater use of IT in legal process, specifically the electronic communication of legal documents. A similar number supported resolving small claims issues online.
However, more than half were worried about potential data security problems with introducing more IT, and many were concerned that moving to a solely digital process of communication would risk isolating some sections of society from justice; the concern was most acute among the over-65s, 77% of whom agreed, compared to 52% of 35-44 year-olds.
Last week, the government committed £700m to the digitisation of the courts and tribunals service.
The survey found public trust of legal professionals especially low among the young and ethnic and religious minorities. Just 31% of 18-24 year olds said they trusted them. Among black people the figure was 28%, and a mere 20% and 17% respectively among Muslims and Sikhs.
Patrick Allen, Hodge Jones & Allen’s senior partner, said: “These statistics represent a damning indictment of the British justice system. If millions of people across the country are intimidated, alienated and confused by the prospect of seeking justice in 21st century Britain then we should consider our legal system to have failed in its fundamental duty to provide justice for all.”