Poor Justice for the Poor
Lord Justice Thesiger once stated that ‘what would be a nuisance in Belgrave Square would not necessarily be so in Bermondsey’ [Sturges v Bridgman (1879) LR 11 Ch D 852.], insinuating that the richer you are, the more of a claim to nuisance you have, as you would have higher living expectations. With much of the working class being forced into work as opposed to higher education, the affluent dominated the judiciary. Inevitably, this lead to the issues of the working class being overlooked, making it often difficult for the judiciary to empathise with them. With this in mind, it raises the question of whether we as a society have progressed forwards .
In a modern society, it would be politically incorrect for the judiciary to express themselves as Lord Justice Thesiger did. In fact, it would probably lead to major backlash. There has been a shift in the way that the legal sector discriminates; it is no longer through the judiciary, but more subliminally through its structure: heightened success rates at court have a correlation with legal representation. However, it is easy to see how the costs could act as a deterrence to an average working class individual. The hourly price difference between a Grade A solicitor in London and a Grade D solicitor is £271, an amount that can be deemed excessive considering the time-consuming nature of the litigation system and the fact that the minimum wage is only £7.20. In addition, a study by the Ministry of Justice showed that litigants in person tend to be younger, and have lower incomes and education levels than those who obtain representation. This demonstrates that, one hundred years on, the poor still do not have a claim to justice, as they now cannot afford to pay for a suitable solicitor. This is incredibly problematic in cases such as consumer law, whereby multi-million pound companies can afford top lawyers, skewing the fairness of the case before it is even taken to court.
The confinement of legal aid to subsidise only private affairs, such as homelessness, and domestic violence is suggestive that the working class cannot hold a claim against the wealthy. Logically, if legal aid sought to benefit working class individuals, it should place them in a better position than they currently are when tackling multi-million corporations or difficulties with employers. Currently, these are the battles that the working class are finding the most challenging, as they are dealing with highly influential individuals with access to far better resources than they could ever dream of. The areas of law covered by legal aid seek to provide financial support to people of the same social calibre and therefore the same accessibility to solicitors. However, in line with the traditional approach to class and through the structures put in place, the working class cannot challenge or contest the middle class, putting them in a weaker position, as they are limited in methods to contest the more powerful.
Legal Aid’s lack of accessibility could also be considered a potential failure, where only the most vulnerable members of society can have access to it following extensive evidence based selection process. Understandably, there are limited resources and the process may be deemed necessary. However, the system almost makes the working class compete against each other for a claim of justice. This feeds into Lord Carey’s archaic notion of the ‘underserving poor’ and the ‘bloated’ welfare system that ‘rewards fecklessness and irresponsibility’. Such lack of accessibility implies that there is a category of people, namely the working class, that are responsible for their own misfortune. This does not reconcile well with the rule of law, as it implies that the middle class perceive themselves to have more of a legal right than others, and advocates that the working class are undeserving of justice, which is a very dangerous trail.
To answer the initial question presented at the start of this article, we have not, as a society, progressed past the idea that the wealthier you are, the more of a claim you have to justice. This is due to the institutional discrimination that takes place within the structure of the UK’s legal system and the way in which it is run. The social discrimination that takes place is no longer as blatant as it had been in the past, but its concealed nature makes it more dangerous