A human rights group has called upon lawyers to drop the use of ‘impenetrable’ and ‘convoluted’ legal jargon and for the court service to publish online guidance as to what court users can expect from the trial process. The public often felt ‘baffled’ by the ‘impenetrable language and convoluted legal jargon’ and it was ‘imperative’ that lawyers should communicate ‘in a clear and unpretentious manner’, argued a JUSTICE working party.
In a time where cuts to legal aid have resulted in an ever-increasing number of unrepresented users of the courts system, JUSTICE warns of the danger of the public being unable to understand the legal process and feeling disconnected from it. The report (Understanding Courts) quotes the president of the family division Sir James Munby calling the court processes, ‘our rules, our forms, our guidance’, ‘ ‘woefully inadequate’ for even ‘educated, highly-articulate, intelligent’ litigants in person to understand the system. ‘And that is a shocking reproach—to us, not them,’ he added.
The JUSTICE report proposes some 41 recommendations seeking to ‘place lay people at the heart of the justice system’ so that ‘the public can participate effectively in the resolution of their legal disputes’.
The working party recognises some attempts made by NGOs to simplify the process for lay users. However, it argues that piecemeal efforts must make way for a concerted change of approach by the court service, lawmakers and court professionals. The group calls on the court service to provide one central source of guidance for the public to be hosted on gov.uk webpages; however it should ‘have a different look and feel to emphasise constitutional independence’ from Government departments against which people might be bringing or defending claims. The group argued that the responsibility for updating it should be on the Ministry of Justice.
JUSTICE calls on lawyers to drop terms such as ‘learned friend’ or ‘friend’ and replace them with ‘the other side’s solicitor/barrister’, or the ‘prosecutor’ or ‘Mrs Smith’ to ‘reduce the risk of exclusion and suspicion legal professionals’. ‘Comments and banter’ might be ‘a way of de-stressing’ but were ‘in almost all cases, best dealt with away from court’, the group said.
‘Access to justice doesn’t stop at entry to the courtroom, but requires that lay people really understand and effectively participate in proceedings,’ said Director of JUSTICE, Andrea Comber.
The report emphasises the importance of two-way understanding. Firstly, that all users of the courts system are given the necessary tools to allow them to actively understand the process in which they are taking part. Equally, the courts themselves must understand the position of lay users of the system, where necessary, making adjustments or allowances for them.
The report highlights the importance of adequate support systems being available for all users of the justice system. According to the Working Party, this requires courts to make reasonable adjustments to the process to ensure that it does not operate in a way that excludes some people from having proper access to the justice system.