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Weekly Update 22 October 2021

Weekly Update 22 October 2021

Dear Friends,

This week, we held our first live panel discussion for 18 months - on the subject of ​​Build Back Better: Online Civil Justice after the Pandemic.

​​To examine the rapid spread of online court proceedings, and discuss their future after the pandemic, we worked with the City of London Corporation and the Magna Carta Trust to bring together a panel of distinguished speakers from the judiciary, legal profession and civil society.

The event took place in the historic setting of London's Guildhall.

Our first speaker was the senior judge leading the online civil disputes reform programme in England and Wales, Sir Geoffrey Vos, Master of the Rolls and Head of Civil Justice. In a talk which has been reported in the Law Gazette, Sir Geoffrey outlined his ambitious vision for creating a single online portal that would enable the public to register disputes and find the most effective routes for resolving them. This would span not only the courts but also the work of ombud bodies, and opportunities for mediation, arbitration and other consensual forms of dispute resolution.

The audience heard next from Elizabeth Andersen, Executive Director of the World Justice Project (WJP), which just published its Rule of Law Index 2021 , covering 139 jurisdictions. The annual Index is the leading Rule of Law indicator of its kind. Ms Andersen drew attention to stark findings from 2020-2021: a decline in civil justice indicators in more than 70% of countries, notably through court delays, and worsening problems of discrimination that were almost equally widespread. This highlighted the scale of the challenge in providing access to justice, with WJP already having found in its global access to justice study before the pandemic that more only a minority of people across the world are aware of their legal rights in civil matters, from family law to property and employment. Even fewer people have the means and resources to enforce such rights. Ms Andersen pointed out that online tools such as legal advice apps must be considered as part of a holistic strategy for addressing these problems.

The final speaker was I. Stephanie Boyce, President of the Law Society of England and Wales. Ms Boyce argued that access to justice dimensions needed to be considered very carefully in any online reforms. As she previously noted in her presidential address, it will be vital to make provision for "alternatives for those who do not find online procedures accessible - owing to lack of equipment, limited internet access, poor digital skills or disability or affordability; [and] contingency plans for when systems fail". Ms Boyce also noted the importance of ensuring that face-to-face legal advice could still be obtained for sensitive matters such as family disputes. She reminded the audience of the grave issues raised by legal advice 'deserts' in many parts of the UK, and called for the co-location of legal advice with other public services, together with greater public legal education (PLE), starting with the school curriculum. The Bingham Centre has long been involved in this area, through our development of resources for schools, our Rule of Law and Citizenship MOOC and by contributing to the development of the UK government's mission statement on PLE and the Legal Services Board to report on the effectiveness of PLE initiatives.

The panellists expanded on their ideas for strengthening access to justice in a vigorous Q&A session chaired by Catherine McGuinness, Chair of the Policy and Resources Committee of the City of London Corporation. We plan to share a video recording of the full event on our website as soon as it is available.

We were very fortunate this week also to have a second in-person event, when panellist Elizabeth Andersen agreed to offer a Bingham Centre seminar on the WJP Rule of Law Index. In this session she explored the challenges of measuring the Rule of Law through an approach that is people-centred with household surveys providing a necessary foundation for the assessment of each country, in addition to expert input and other data. Elizabeth is pictured with Bingham Centre team members and guests below (third from right).

In a week which saw the EU's Rule of Law stand-off with Poland come to a head, and the UK House of Commons debate for the first time the Government's Judicial Review and Courts Bill, we are reminded of how fundamentally important the Rule of Law is to the health and well-being of democratic societies. The invisible underpinning that it provides to democracy has been taken for granted for so long that we need to ensure that we remain vigilant to protect it when it is put at risk, as it increasingly is in today's polarised politics.

You can read the whole Weekly Update here.

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