Let me tell you a story. You are walking down a dark lane carrying a box containing a nice watch that you have just bought from a jewellers. A thug comes up to you, threatens you with a knife, and demands that you give it to them. You tell them “it’s mine, I’ve just bought it”. They say that they don’t care, and as you aren’t a mad hero you hand it over and they run off. Your legal rights have been completely worthless on their own. What you needed was a pet leopard, one of those Crocodile Dundee “you call that a knife? This is what I call a knife” blades, or a small troop of cavalry. In other words, you need to have your rights enforced by force if necessary.
Let’s change the facts a bit. You get home safely but the next morning a man from the jewellers comes to say that there has been a mistake and that the watch had been reserved by Mr Big, a local gangster, and so they shouldn’t have sold it to you and that you would have to give it back. You refuse. They sue you in the local court where the judge is Mr Big’s brother, and despite there being no legal basis for their claim you lose. Again, your legal rights have been completely worthless on their own. You need an honest legal system to enforce the rights.
Let’s change things again. You are sitting at home and admiring your property. A developer calls and gives you a formal claim to buy the house under an option that he said had been granted to him by a previous owner. The price to be paid is a fraction of the true value. You don’t believe the option is genuine (you don’t think it likely that the house once belonged to a “Mr Michael Mouse” of Hollywood) and go to a lawyer. The lawyer explains that under recent legal reforms it is necessary to carry out an enormous amount of work in the early stages of a case, (see here) and so you will need to pay him £25,000 immediately, and that the total cost of the case will be £50k-£100k, or possibly more, of which you may recover half if you win. You don’t have that sort of money, but the developer does. You can’t fight the case on your own and so have to negotiate a poor deal. So your legal rights have been completely worthless on their own. You have to be able to afford to enforce them.
One final scenario. Your local council decide to retrospectively revoke the planning permission on your house and demand that it is demolished without compensation because there was an error in the initial planning application made by the the original owner. This is said to be permissible under recent legislation passed to tighten up planning procedure. You try to find a lawyer to advise you on this complicated matter, but find that under the legislation lawyers are not allowed to advise or represent parties. You try to look up the legal background but it is beyond your limited education and skill. So you never know what your legal rights are, let alone how to enforce them. Your legal rights have been completely worthless on their own. You need access to legal advice when necessary.
These are just stories, as I said at the beginning. But the lessons are very real. Legal rights are only any good if they can be enforced for a sensible price and in a sensible period of time by the people who have them, and for this purpose they need affordable legal advice and an affordable and fair legal system. Of course some matters are best dealt with by a small claims system where people argue cases themselves, and some things are best dealt with by ombudsmen and the like. But there must be an effective system if the rule of law is to mean anything. And recent developments, with small claims now running up to £10,000, vastly increased work needed for fairly ordinary civil cases, draconian penalties if anything goes even slightly wrong, the abolition of Legal Aid, greatly increased court fees, large issue and trial fees for employment claims, and the loss of so many local solicitors who gave advice to local people, make me very concerned.
Because if you can’t enforce your rights you’ve lost them.