Impact has been less than expected
A report from Cardiff Law School highlights the very limited impact of the Human Rights Act in helping a deprived South Wales Valleys community.
Twenty-one solicitors in practice in the Cynon Valley were interviewed to establish their understanding, appreciation and use of the Act for the benefit of local residents in the Cynon Valley, an area which includes one of the most socially and economically deprived communities in Britain.
"This important study demonstrates how much needs to be done to help those in an area of significant social deprivation in the United Kingdom, who really ought to be the primary beneficiaries of the Human Rights Act," said Lord Justice Thomas, the Senior Presiding Judge for England and Wales. "A way must be found to ensure that this is rectified." The Human Rights Act (HRA) was described by the former Home Secretary, Jack Straw as "the new rights for the millennium. It is one of the most important pieces of legislation the UK has seen. It will mark a major change in the creation of a culture of rights and responsibilities in our society."
Illicit drug use is widely considered one of the biggest problems facing the community. Solicitors practising in family and criminal law indicated that an overwhelming proportion of their caseload is linked to drug and alcohol issues.
"Saturday night in Aberdare is very much like Saturday night in some Wild West town," said one solicitor interviewed.
Impact of the HRA
The majority of solicitors thought the HRA has had a very limited impact on their work.
Comments from solicitors included:
- "Initially, we thought it was going to have a big impact but I think we can honestly say it hasn't had a huge impact at all really."
- "There is very low awareness of the HRA…. It is not a topic that rises to the fore when we are talking among colleagues."
- "The HRA is being used even less now than when it first came out."
- The HRA, when used in court, is employed as a "bolt on" argument sometimes seen as a "last resort" argument for a weak case.
- "Solicitors do not always mention the specific article because they are not sure which one is relevant to their case. Instead, they just throw it in."
No solicitor presented as having "expert knowledge" of the HRA and there is virtually no client awareness of the HRA.
Solicitors lack appropriate training in the usage of the HRA. Some were cautioned about "frivolous" use of the HRA, which would upset judges.
The HRA is perceived by solicitors as "ground breaking" and therefore attracts high financial costs along with high risks regarding success. One solicitor commented: "It would be difficult for us to fund such ground breaking litigation pro bono."
Adequate public funding from the Legal Services Commission was a consistent concern especially given the low/no wage community within the Cynon Valley.
There is concern that both the number of solicitors, small law firms and range of legal services are declining due to lack of public funding.
"The number of solicitors is going to dwindle. It's happening now. There are a lot of firms in the valley that haven't expanded, people in them are getting older. Once they retire there is nobody to take their place. It's beginning to contract," said one solicitor.
"There are going to be fewer lawyers in the Cynon Valley in ten years time. It is not a place where people like to live. It is not a place where you can get wealthy. It is not a place where you will sit in a smart office," added another. "We are seeing a shrinkage of legal aid franchises and the clients were probably better off a few years ago," said another solicitor. "They were pointed in the right direction more quickly and had a better choice of firm. This is something that needs to be referred to the government. Maybe it is not so worthwhile for some firms to have to go through hell of maintaining the Legal Services Commission contract."
Mr Gwyn George, of George and D'Ambra, Aberdare, responded to the book as follows: "With the general decline in access to justice my hope is that this research will lead to discernible improvements. My fear is that it will not."
Professor Phil Thomas, Law School, Cardiff University, said: " Our research findings are not unique to South Wales. They probably reflect the position of many high street, small practices in Britain that are struggling to provide a public service. The Human Rights Act becomes a secondary issue within the daily exercise of maintaining a practice."
The Nuffield Foundation and the Cardiff Law School Research Committee financed the research.
The Human Rights Act 1998: An Impact Study in South Wales by Phil Thomas and Josephine Sheehan of Cardiff Law School, Cardiff University, and Ruth Costigan, Department of Law, University of Wales, Swansea, is published by Cardiff Law School, Cardiff University. £15.
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