Reshaping policy and practice on citizens' access to justice in the UK and around the world
16 December 2014
Paths to Justice was a landmark body of research that provided unique data on the public experience of the justice system. It transformed understanding and policy around the legal needs of citizens, has been replicated around the world, and led to the adaptation of legal aid and legal services to citizens' needs.
In 1996, during a time of justice system and legal aid reform, certain deficits in the English civil justice system were identified, including inequality of access between wealthy and poor citizens, and the incomprehensibility of the system to many litigants. While there were many assertions at the time regarding citizens' access to justice and the unmet need for legal services, the evidence base was negligible.
To fill this evidence gap, in 1996, Professor Hazel Genn (UCL Laws) was commissioned to conduct a landmark national survey of public experiences of the justice system in England and Wales. The result, Paths to Justice, found that involvement in everyday legal problems was widespread, and that problems often "cluster" together with identifiable 'trigger' events producing a cascade of further problems that can significantly impact health and well-being. While this phenomenon points to a critical need for targeted early advice and intervention, the study found that people were often unable to access information and advice, feeling powerless, unsure of rights and confused about where to obtain help. This is a particular problem for socially excluded groups who are the most likely to suffer legal problems and the least likely to take action to resolve their problems. The report recommended targeting socially excluded groups with legal awareness, improving signposting of free services, and addressing the social cost of lack of access to justice by more 'joined up' services.
This report transformed UK Government thinking on access to justice, and led to changes in the design and delivery of services. The Paths to Justice survey is now funded by the Ministry of Justice as a continuous panel study, the Civil and Social Justice Survey, and it has been replicated in 14 different jurisdictions around the world. In 2008-2013 alone, the survey was replicated in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Ukraine, Taiwan, Netherlands, Moldova and Scotland.
The report has led to identifiable changes in policies on access to justice. A 2013 review of the impact of Paths to Justice found that it has "transformed understanding of public justice needs". Spending on legal aid through the Legal Services Commission in the UK and the Strategic Framework for Access to Justice in Australia have been shaped by the report findings, including funding for outreach, joining up legal and non-legal services, early intervention, and targeting those most in need.
Existing services have been redesigned, including joined up services through the Community Legal Advice Centres and Networks in England, which have been evaluated as offering significant benefits to the community. Professor Genn headed a task force on public legal education which led to the establishment of a ministerial strategy group and the creation of the charity Law for Life in 2010.
More broadly, the Paths to Justice research has produced a fundamental shift in justice policy thinking from a focus on lawyers and courts to a focus on the needs of the public. As recently as 2012, when the government proposed cuts to legal aid, the research was cited in the House of Lords to demonstrate the inevitable spiral of decline which had been shown to occur without early advice and intervention.