The Scottish courts have been subject to a wide ranging review with the "Scottish Civil Courts Review" (the "Gill Review") in September 2009. Since the Gill Review was published it has been subject to comment and analysis by many individuals and organisations, responding to the wide-ranging recommendations put forward. The latest response comes from the Civil Justice Advisory Group ("CJAG") who published their report titled "Ensuring effective access to the appropriate and affordable dispute resolution" (the "Report") on 18 January 2011. We have been looking at the recommendations made by the CJAG.
The sixth recommendation proposed by CJAG is that funding should be made available to pilot more proactive legal education initiatives to build legal capability amongst particular population groups. This concept is an extension of the access to justice proposals set out in the Gill Review which include improving the online availability of information for the public, the development of in-court advice and the rights of lay representatives (McKenzie friends).
In its response, CJAG point to the fact that, on average, Scottish households are less likely to have access to computers and broadband than in the rest of the UK. A recent Ofcom report highlights that only 61% of Scottish households currently have access to broadband (compared to 71% UK wide), this is despite uptake doubling over the last five years. The CJAG response therefore raises legitimate concerns as to over-reliance on the internet for the provision of information. Conversely, the current financial constraints on all public bodies mean that ensuring the greatest impact is obtained with the funds available is crucial. In its budget in November 2010, the Scottish Government announced that legal aid would face a cut in the order of 8.2%. The Law Society of Scotland has since released a discussion paper on the reform of the legal aid system. Amongst other proposals, it is suggested that the Civil Legal Assistance Offices be taken into community ownership.
CJAG themselves acknowledge that there is currently insufficient empirical evidence to gauge the effectiveness of public legal education initiatives. Whilst the availability of internet access continues to improve at a steady rate, it may be that the most practical way of ensuring consumers have access to justice is to ensure that information is available for those who are willing to seek it out.
The challenge of legal education is to distinguish between information and advice. Over the last 10 to 15 years the amount of "law" available has exploded. Statutes, case reports and even textbooks are available online. However making sense of the law in simple, user-friendly guides is the real challenge. That requires a significant investment in time and effort, and unfortunately it would appear that the resources are not available for that kind of project. Perhaps a community-led "wiki" style project, with everyone contributing a little time and effort, is the solution?