The law of intended consequences


Hardly anybody who has regular contact with public services in the UK can claim to be unaffected by the public expenditure cuts that have occurred over the last 5 years or so. For my part I am one of those who have always felt that the bureaucracy of public service is inclined to be wasteful and self serving and delivers what are flagged up as ‘essential’ services in a less than efficient way. I speak as a former public servant of 11 years. BUT there is another side to this.

What has this got to do with the law? Well quite a lot really. There is no doubt that the provision of legal services and the administration of justice is a costly business. Lawyers, sensible ones anyway, want to be paid a salary which they regard as adequate reward for the qualifications they have achieved and the responsibility the job entails. So they get out of publicly funded work. The public fund for legal services is slashed. Many can no longer afford to go to law so they don’t bother. Does this really matter save to those directly affected? I suspect the general public would say not, until that is, someone moves their boundary fence or does not pay for work they have done.

The decline in public funding not only directly to lawyers has other consequences as well. Statistics are produced to show that fewer court houses are needed. Those that are retained, even new ones, are under used and court sittings are cancelled. The police are prevailed upon by so called ‘guidance’ to prosecute fewer people. What does this mean for ‘law and order’? The danger is that people become disconnected from the law and decline to be witnesses or take part in a system they no longer regard as having any relevance to them. Any lingering feelings of public service quickly disappear in the knowledge that as a witness you may face a long journey to and from a distant court and you will not even be paid the losses that arise from doing that.

The civil courts are experiencing a significant decline in new cases issued. One suspects this is not unconnected with the changes to the way low value personal injury claims are dealt with and the raising of the small claims limit to £10,000. This has also led to an increase in the numbers of litigants in person who are mostly partly informed, ill prepared and some frankly hopeless.

The number of new cases issued at employment tribunals has significantly declined since the introduction of fees this year. That may be a good thing as some cases could only be described as speculative and without risk to claimants. That is the fault of the lawyers who took them on hoping that the other side would cave in at some stage simply because it was cheaper to do so. However the baby may have gone out with the bath water.So, the government achieves its cuts. At the same time it emasculates the court system and with it part of the legal profession. Just as there are too many journalists chasing too few stories there may be too many lawyers chasing too few cases. Market forces inevitably come into play and those lawyers who lose sight of the fact they are running a business (if they ever had it) cut their fees or close down. Now that is the intended consequence.

by Steve McGregor from the Wisbech office