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NEWS

Understanding courts: would you? New report by JUSTICE considers accessibility of the justice system

admin - February 7, 2019 - plain language, Letters of Rights

 

On 25 January, JUSTICE – the UK human rights NGO, launched its latest working party report, ‘Understanding Courts’. The working group was chaired by Sir Nicholas Blake and supported by Allen and Overy LLP. The report calls for a legal system that places lay people at its heart and is shaped around their needs. It makes clear that courts and tribunals should not only be places where legal professionals work but also where the public can participate effectively.

A legal system can be effective – and legitimate – only if it allows for the participation of laypeople, whether they are a victim, witness, juror, defendant, or someone attending court just to observe. It so important that a person is able to understand the court processes, the language and questioning, and the legal professionals working within it. And it’s a two-way process: the court must understand the needs of laypeople, especially the unrepresented and vulnerable.

Plain language is essential for the right to a fair trial: if you cannot understand your rights and the language that is used in the justice system, you cannot have full access to it. Together with partners, Fair Trials is currently working towards a movement recognising the value of plain language within justice systems, and plans to develop accessible letters of rights in a number of EU Member States.

Despite many attempts to simplify the process, and in an era where cuts to legal aid mean that many more people go unrepresented, studies continue to cast doubt on how effectively the justice systems across the UK are currently operating. It’s clear that there are barriers between professionals and people in court, with the at-times chaotic nature of proceedings creating a culture that marginalises the public using courts. ‘Understanding Courts’ calls for a change in approach so that people can understand and take part in legal process.

The findings of the report show that people often go to a court or a tribunal without a proper understanding of what they should expect from the process, and what is expected of them. The working party recommends publishing practical information, in different formats, on what to expect at a hearing or a trial that is clear, accessible and easy-to-understand.

Another recommendation is to conduct a judiciary-led consultation within the legal profession to evaluate modes of address and commonly misunderstood terminology used in court. The findings of such a review should inform training for new and continuing practitioners, in order to encourage lawyers and judges to communicate effectively with court users. As a specific example, questioning techniques should be adapted to the needs and understanding of each person.

It's not just those accused of crimes: There are many people accessing courts as parties or witnesses who need additional support in order to take part, irrespective of how well they are informed of the process in advance, or how well professionals communicate with them. It is crucial that the courts operate in a way which does not exclude such people from having proper access to justice. The report considers the reasonable adjustments and support services currently made available to court users and recommends expansion of good practice across all jurisdictions.

Read the ‘Understanding Courts’ report here.

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71.

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