• Robert Spicer

Poverty And The Law

A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a thousand men with guns Mario Puzo, The Godfather

Each wanton judge new penal statutes draw Laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law Goldsmith, The Traveller

Lord Bingham has commented that equality before the law is an aspect of the rule of law. He stated his view that the laws of the land should apply equally to all and that it is the duty of the state to make the machinery of law work alike, for rich and poor.

Poverty and the law If people are not able to exercise their legal rights because of their poverty, then those rights have no real existence outside legal textbooks. No matter how sophisticated the legal system or how detailed the rules and procedures surrounding such rights, then in reality they do not exist for those who are too poor to exercise them. Without money, many rights under English law are illusory. For example, English law has a highly-developed and complex set of rules aimed at protecting workers against unfair dismissal. There is a clear general right not to be unfairly dismissed. If a worker is dismissed and he or she reasonably believes that they have been unfairly treated, then in theory they have the right, in some circumstances, to complain to an employment tribunal. If they are a member of a trade union, then the union may pick up the costs of legal advice and representation and bear the risk of paying the other side’s costs. The rules and procedures surrounding unfair dismissal have become so complex (essentially because of the involvement of lawyers and the adversarial nature of English justice, resulting in a mass of decided cases which interpret complex statutes) that it is very difficult for non-lawyers to exercise these rights themselves. For the non-unionised worker without money, it is almost impossible to exercise the right not to be unfairly dismissed. The procedural complexity of tribunal proceedings is daunting, and lawyers have made it worse.

The key to understanding the English legal system is the central role of money. I have lost count of the number of my clients who have not been able to start or continue their cases because of lack of money. My conclusion can only be that where legal rights cannot in reality be exercised because of poverty, then those rights have no existence. Their existence, for the poor, is abstract and theoretical. Outside plush solicitors’ offices, barristers’ chambers, legal textbooks and university lecture rooms, legal rights have little relevance for poor people.

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