Leeds GATE

Working to improve the quality of life for Gypsies and Travellers

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Justice for all?

Ben Chastney's picture
By Ben Chastney |  July 23, 2014 |

Justice for All? asks Leeds GATEOn recently supporting members in various Court proceedings, some glaring obstacles to fair justice have re-emerged.  Whether serious criminal cases or smaller civil claims, whether defendant or claimant, some big challenges are faced by Gypsies and Travellers.  Of course, the wider observation about unfair treatment of the community in legal processed is well documented.  I rather wish to point out some of the more practical, often smaller technical difficulties, which further undermine access to justice, in addition to these broader discriminatory structures and attitudes.

Take literacy.  Whilst of course formal efforts are made by the justice system that every individual involved is able to understand the details, this is far from perfect.  Most seriously, assumptions are made about the ability to read or at least find support from someone who can.  Many members do indeed our access services for such support but this cannot always be the case and certainly unlikely in areas with no such Gypsy and Traveller organisation.  Whilst checks are formally made in various legal processes that all parties fully understand proceedings, it is understandable if individuals are reluctant to openly declare their difficulties.  Disadvantage therefore persists.

The barrier of literacy naturally affects many formal processes, from accessing benefits to obtaining driving licences.  It is acute however within the justice system, not only due to the importance of the issues discussed, but the language used.  Whether written documents, such as court papers, or verbal communication, such as tribunal hearings, there is a significant amount of complex terminology and phrases which challenge even the most literate.  Whilst it is clear that efforts are being made in some fields, such as employment tribunals, to make the process more informal and accessible, discussions remain fairly impenetrable for many.

Similar to the issue of language is the complexity of processes and procedures.  That is, understanding what is going to happen, when and why, whether over the course of a whole case or individual hearing.  Without such knowledge and comprehension, such proceedings will unavoidably be more stressful and confusing.  Whilst we must accept the need for some formality and unavoidable complexity, it is frustrating to see many people struggle to put across their strongest case and therefore have the greatest guarantee of a fair hearing.

A large part of the equation also comes down to support.  Whilst of course many of these barriers to understanding the justice system are faced by almost anyone not operating within it, access to legal representation and advice is not equally accessible.  The significant cuts to legal aid have certainly removed one major route of support for many cases, such as family law.  In its absence, members must either find often significant funds or use alternative forms of support, such as ourselves or other charities, and we do not have the legal knowledge or resources to provide the strongest input.

With respect to the inevitable question of ‘what is to be done’ there are clearly no easy answers.  The prospect of radical simplification of the system or full scale restoration of legal aid is unlikely in the short term.  What should be striven for at the very least is greater appreciation that many vulnerable people, such as Gypsies and Travellers, encounter great difficulties in following judicial processes and that this undermines their position.  Sadly assumptions are widely made about the scale and impact of these barriers to justice and it is these assumptions which must be challenged.

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