So what have we learned over the past six weeks?
We have learned that if court fees are too high this reduces access to the courts.
But the courts are a branch of the State rather than a ‘consumer service’. Effectively denying large sectors of the population access to justice is dangerous as it could lead to people taking the law into their own hands.
Not a good thing for society.
The complex system
Although they are in many ways inevitable, over complex laws can also unnecessarily increase costs which in turn may lead to a denial of justice.
These are high, partly because training lawyers and running law firms is expensive and partly because (at the moment) many are prepared to pay. But this will change if a cheaper alternative becomes available.
The advances in technology we are starting to see will inevitably, long term, have a downwards effect on fees.
This was at one time a viable alternative for many people but it had big problems. Government cuts (for civil legal aid) have now taken it away from all but the poorest in society, and only then where there is a viable case.
For most people, legal aid is not an option. So they are left with:
Online / technology solutions
The internet and technology has made much legal information freely available and there are now many online, and cheaper, services for the production of documents, and in some cases, legal procedures.
This will increase as time goes by, and long-term will undoubtedly result in a dramatic reduction in costs and greater access to justice.
There are indications that the development of Artificial Intelligence will in time take over much of traditional lawyer’s work and therefore the charges made – but this has not happened yet.
A way forward?
When I originally thought about this series, I wondered whether things would work out like this:
- The traditional service being there for people and companies who have the wherewithal to pay the hefty fees for 1:1 legal advice
- Legal Aid being there for the very poorest and also those who are unable for some reason to use the cheaper online services. Perhaps due to mental or other problems
- The new online and automation services being available for everyone else.
The main problem with this vision is the reluctance of most law firms to implement the cheaper online and automation solutions.
Calling time on time
Most lawyers are still wedded to traditional charging procedures in particular charging for their time at an hourly rate. Even alternative methods of charging – such as fixed fees – tend to be based on an hourly rate.
However, charging by the hour is deeply unpopular with clients, because it rewards inefficiency and penalises quick workers. And it is also unnecessary. We now have better ways of doing things than putting on a suit and going to see a bloke in an office.
The march of the legal machines
Lawyers have to get their heads around the fact that they must innovate and invent if they want to be market leaders. Being great people delivering a great service via a fine brand is no longer enough; the whole thing is breaking down where these services are being delivered by different entities, and some of those entities are algorithms or software packages.
Inevitably these new entities are going to drive down costs. Law and legal advice, are going to be a lot cheaper in about 20 years, than now.
So – should law and justice be free?
I think there is a strong argument for court fees to be, if not free, at least affordable. As we saw in part 2, it should be every citizen’s right to go to law. Very high court fees effectively remove this right.
So far as making the law available to all – this has already been done – statues, case law and the Civil Procedure rules can now all be found online. See the links on this page below the index. The trouble is that few people can understand them due to their complexity.
I think that there is a strong argument for ensuring that our laws, at the very least, those which are intended for consumers, are couched in a less difficult and more understandable style. Whether this will ever happen though is debatable.
Assuming that our legal system remains complex, most people will need a lawyer or at least some sort of legal guidance, to help them. Lawyers are businesses and cannot be forced to provide free or low-cost services. So their services will only be free if they decide to offer them for free – for example via ‘pro bono’ (posh legal word for free) initiatives.
But law firms are subject to market forces. So long as people are willing to pay their high fees, they will continue to charge them.
However, with the massive upheaval that is taking place and will continue to take place in all our lives due to changes in technology, this will change. New services are being developed which will undercut traditional lawyers fees and force them to charge less or work in a different way. Or develop different, cheaper services.
I have a warning for traditional law firms. You ignore the new technology at your peril. Its progress cannot be stopped any more than King Canute could stop the tide coming in by holding up his hand.
If lawyers do not reduce their costs by implementing modern ways of delivery of legal services, then non-lawyers will step in and do it instead. Which could mean the profession being left behind and marginalised.
And many things that lawyers now charge for may indeed end up being low cost or even free.