Wednesday, 16 April 2014

British Justice. The envy of the world?

Nigel Evans, MP, was happy to sacrifice affordable access to justice on the altar of austerity, until it affected him personally. So far it's a simple story of hypocrisy, but there may be a wider and more subtle form of cognitive bias going on here, too.

I'm thinking of the lingering impression that our system of justice is, if not the envy of the world, at least basically decent. It's a mindset that makes even people who aren't Nigel Evans feel some shock at the idea of a person who's been found innocent being financially ruined by massive legal bills.

The World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index 2014 (.pdf here) tries to assign an overall rank to various countries' legal systems, based on their performance against nine criteria.* By these measures, the United Kingdom ranks 13th, below Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Austria, Australia, Germany, Singapore, Canada and Japan. 13th place isn't hopelessly embarrassing, but it still indicates that even foreigners might have a few things to teach us.

I don't take the WJP's index at face value - two points spring immediately to mind. Firstly and obviously, English law, which applies in England and Wales, differs from Northern Ireland law and differs even more from Scots law, so I don't know where the UK's individual constituent countries would sit in the league table if their scores were disaggregated.

Secondly and more importantly, one of the criteria used in the WJP's Rule of Law Index was 'People can access and afford civil justice.' Nigel Evans was an acquitted defendant in criminal trial, who found that he could access, but couldn't afford, criminal justice. The affordability of criminal justice doesn't seem to have been a factor in compiling in the Rule of Law Index.

But, even if the exact rankings and criteria are arguable, the default assumption that that our justice system is the envy of the world looks pretty questionable. Even columnists writing for the jingoistic Spectator are shaken:
Despite the criminal legal aid bill plummeting over the last seven years, Grayling intends to cut it even more, driving out the talented, specialised independent Bar and replacing it with cheaper options, such as G4s, Serco and Cooperative law ... So much for British Justice. The envy of the world? Not unless you live in Russia or Zimbabwe. And if Grayling has his way it will be far, far worse. The sooner he sets sail on the Maria Celeste the better.
To be fair, our plummeting legal aid budget is still pretty massive, but you can spend a lot of money on something and still end up with a second-rate system that excludes a lot of people - just look at the US health care system.

*Constraints on government powers, the absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, civil justice, criminal justice and informal justice.