The Cost of Justice

High legal fees are locking people out of the courts system.

If someone needs legal services, it can mean paying thousands of euros, and the exact cost generally can’t be predicted in advance.

For example, if you want to hire a solicitor for a divorce they will refuse to tell you how much it will all cost because they don’t know. Lawyers charge an hourly rate. If they make a phone call, write a letter, peruse a case file, do research or witness a statement the lawyers will charge for this, all before anyone steps foot inside a courtroom.

The difficulty of the case depends on whether there are assets that need to be discovered and valued, children who need custody arrangements, or maintenance payments where one spouse earns significantly more than the other. It also depends whether the case is contested.

Given that hourly rates are invariably more than €100, this process can mean a bill in the thousands.

Most people don’t have that much money sitting around. It can mean being forced to drop the case, self-representation in court or getting into debt to pay your legal fees. The threat of legal action alone is often enough to bully people into settlements.

Chances are most people will need legal help at some point in their lives. Apart from general legal transactions like registering a will or buying a house, you can’t predict when you might be illegally evicted, unfairly dismissed, run over by a reckless driver or be unable to pay your debts.

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Why Access to Justice Matters

If you took a poll of people on the street and asked them if access to justice was important, the overwhelming majority would probably say yes. But ‘access to justice’ is one of those ideals that we take as a given, like democracy or freedom of expression, without really thinking about what it means in practice and how it should be implemented.

One of the most visible aspects of the right to access justice is the court system. This could vary from getting compensation from the person who crashed into you while driving, to holding the government to account through judicial review. Without access to the courts it is often difficult or impossible to ensure that your rights are being upheld.

However, the right to access the courts does not just include a literal right to bring a case. Access remains an issue if you are unable to understand the court system or adequately represent yourself during your court case. This is why the right to access the courts is often indivisible from the right to legal representation.

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