I’ve always been fascinated by history – I studied it at school and at university, and for much of my life since history books have dominated my reading matter. It is often stated that one of the primary reasons for studying history is the lessons that it can teach us for the present. Normally, those lessons come in the form of learning from the mistakes of our forefathers. Sometimes, however, the lesson comes in a different, quite unexpected, form.
So it was for me over the weekend whilst I was devouring a particularly good history of the Wars of the Roses, a period I had largely overlooked previously. When I reached the part where the apparently evil Richard III seized the crown, the last thing I anticipated was a lesson in good justice, particularly one that resonated so clearly with the current plight of our justice system. However, as we shall see, Richard was not the one-dimensional villain that so many history-tellers over the following centuries would have us believe. He may have been a usurper, responsible for heinous crimes including the death of the princes in the Tower, but he understood the necessity for a good system of justice in his realm.
The history tells us that over Christmas 1483 Richard’s mind had been on the plight of England’s poor, who found themselves unable to get justice due to the high costs of the legal system. A justice system that is only affordable for the wealthy – now where have we heard that before? The history goes on to tell us that on the 27th of December Richard granted a yearly payment for life of £20 to his clerk John Harington, who served the Court of Requests, a court designed to hear the ‘bills, requests and supplications of poor persons’, thereby offering them a route to legal redress that would not ruin them financially.
Clearly, those in our government responsible for our justice system do not appear to have read their history. Instead of ensuring that all people have proper access to justice – a thing that is not only their right but also surely for the benefit of a fair and, ultimately, peaceful society – this government have done precisely the opposite. Under the cover of an apparent need to save money, they have embarked upon a systematic dismantling of our justice system that has resulted in swathes of our society being denied access to justice.
That programme has, in particular, removed legal aid for many (including most people involved in private law family disputes), hugely increased court fees (a process that shows no sign of ending and includes fees for child maintenance applications) and closed large numbers of courts, making it more difficult for many to get to a court, especially for those of low means. These policies have resulted in a situation in which access to justice is effectively denied to those who can’t afford it – an increasingly large section of society.
What happens when people are denied access to justice? Well, it seems that that was something that Richard III understood, even if our government do not, and it goes much further than merely being denied a particular right, such as child maintenance or a fair divorce settlement. Those denied justice will feel excluded from society and will ultimately take the law into their own hands. If this sounds like an exaggeration, we have in fact already heard warnings of this in the field of family law, for example non-custodial parents trying to force custodial parents to agree to contact demands rather than pursuing those demands through the courts, and custodial parents moving children away rather than arguing children applications at court without proper representation.
The government’s attack on our justice system is real, and it is dangerous. A proper all-inclusive system of justice is essential for all in society, and that includes those who are sufficiently well-off not to be affected by the government’s policies. It seems remarkable that this could have been understood by someone often described as a tyrant 500 years ago, but not by a government in the enlightenment of the 21st century.
Image by VeteranMP via Wikipedia