We live in fast-moving times, where nothing is sacred and everything is subject to change. The things that we once considered to be permanent turn out to be no more than temporary. Who would have thought, for example, that a high-street icon such as Woolworths would disappear, or that the home telephone would be made virtually redundant?
I remember when I told my mother that I would be doing divorce work she was pleased, saying: “They’ll always need divorce lawyers!” Now even that is no longer so certain.
And it is quite right of course that nothing should be ‘entitled’ to last forever. If we were to stifle change then we would miss out on advancements. But that is the point of change – that the new will actually be an improvement over the old.
We also live in a time of economic constraint. The government has had to respond to this by reducing expenditure in many areas, and that includes the law. The economists quickly noticed that courts and legal aid were expensive and so those became targets of the cost-cutters.
To save the expense of having a proper court system with proper divorce lawyers, the public has been discouraged from using it. Courts have been closed, forcing people to travel further to seek justice. Those courts that remain are under-staffed and under-funded, making them painfully slow to use. Court fees have been increased, often by many times the rate of inflation.
Meanwhile, legal aid has been first eroded and then virtually washed away completely, leaving many with no legal representation or advice and further discouraging the use of the courts.
Now, people still become involved in legal disputes, whether they want to or (more likely) not. That is one thing that hasn’t changed, and probably never will. So, if they can’t use the courts or afford a lawyer, how do they resolve those disputes?
Well, the answer seems to be that they don’t need to go to court to resolve the disputes, or to a lawyer for legal advice. Courts can be replaced by out of court dispute resolution and lawyers can be replaced by untrained amateur advisers.
In order to consider that properly we need to ask the basic question: why do we have courts and lawyers?
It should be obvious, but we have courts because our society is governed by laws and we need a place with the authority to adjudicate upon disputes regarding those laws. Note two things: firstly, there is just one set of laws that governs us all and secondly that the courts must have authority to adjudicate upon the disputes. In other words, the court system can only be replaced with another system that has both of those two features. We can’t have different rules, or adjudication by a body with no authority to impose its decisions upon the parties. In short, we need something very like the court system that we already have.
As for lawyers, why do we need people who are highly trained in the law, fully regulated and insured? Well, again the answer should be obvious: because, like it or not, the law is complicated and to become proficient a lawyer needs a lot of training and/or experience. Yes, there may be (and are) some competent amateurs, but they are few and far between. The public must be protected from the charlatans, hence the regulation of the legal profession.
The fact of the matter is that there is a point to courts and lawyers. Everyone, irrespective of their means, should have proper access to the law, and that, for the time being at least, means access to the courts and to trained lawyers.