World Justice Project survey sheds new light on troubling link between legal issues and mental illness
Almost one-third of those with legal problems in the UK report developing a stress-related or physical illness as a result of their experience, according to a new international survey comparing people’s perceptions of justice around the world.
In the UK, 31% of respondents with a legal problem over the past two years said they had become ill, the same figure as Canada and 1% higher than in the United States. Of the 45 countries surveyed, Ethiopia came out highest in this category at 41%.
The Access to Justice survey, produced by the World Justice Project (WJP) ahead of its annual Rule of Law Index, also reveals that, of those who had experienced any kind of legal problem, one in 10 respondents from the UK suffered a relationship breakdown and nearly one in five (18%) lost their job, faced financial strain or were forced to relocate.
The research comes five years after the biggest cuts to the legal aid scheme in the UK since it was introduced after the second world war. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (Laspo) Act removed around £600m from the legal aid budget – which stood at around £2.2bn in 2011 – by cutting entire areas of law from its scope. The legal aid budget now stands at around £1.6bn.
According to Pamela Fitzpatrick, director of Harrow Law Centre – which provides a range of free legal advice to the local west London community – the link between legal issues and mental illness is particularly troubling.
“I would say about 70% of our clients, if not more, have a mental illness ranging from depression and social anxiety through to paranoid schizophrenia; it’s a vicious circle,” Fitzpatrick said.
“In every case where I’ve represented someone at a tribunal, the person has burst into tears when they know they’ve won. It’s been such a stressful thing – and that’s with a representative.”
In October 2016, an Amnesty International report accused the government of presiding over the creation of a “two-tier justice system”. The year before Laspo came into force, legal aid was granted in 925,000 cases; the year after, it was available in only 497,000 cases – a “staggering drop” of 46%, according to Amnesty.
Fitzpatrick described one woman who came to Harrow Law Centre after failing a work capability assessment and losing her benefits. Representing herself, she had lost her case at the first-tier tribunal: “She felt like nobody believed she was ill, so she suffered from depression and started to take sleeping tablets during the day to avoid the hunger and the cold.
“This went on for 18 months until we represented her at the upper tribunal and got the judgment overturned,” Fitzpatrick said. “She ended up with £20,000 of arrears of benefits, but she was in such a state at the end of that. If she’d had good help at the start, it would never have happened.”
“If you take away support from people who need it, then it would be absurd to think this would not have consequences,” said Prof Pascoe Pleasence, of University College London. “It is troubling that Laspo has removed support for a wide range of legal problem types that we know can significantly impact on the wellbeing of those who face them. [These issues] link to public health and fuel social inequality through their interaction with other life events.”
The WJP’s survey suggests the most commonly experienced legal problem in the UK is trouble with neighbours, with one in five respondents (20%) reporting such issues. This is consistent with the English and Welsh Civil and Social Justice Survey (CSJS) – regularly published since 2001 – according to Pleasence, who is one of its authors.
“Initially, policymakers thought that problems with neighbours were about somebody not cutting their hedge,” Pleasence said. “But, largely, we are talking about dense urban areas where people can really be victimised by their neighbours. Often, these problems really do impact people’s lives.”
In the 2012 CSJS, almost half of all neighbour-related problems were found to have adverse consequences involving health and wellbeing.
“So many health problems are caused by anxiety and stress when dealing with an issue that one might not recognise as a legal problem,” said Sir Henry Brooke, vice-chair of an all-party commission headed by the Labour peer Lord Willy Bach, looking into the impact of the 2013 legal aid cuts.
“All the research is saying that if you tackle the causes of the potential stress and mental health issues at the start, you save a great deal in healthcare costs and the breakdown of relationships, loss of employment and housing later down the track.”
According to Sean Canning, a manager at Hackney Community Law Centre, the stress being placed on its clients is unprecedented. “There is a perfect storm coming from a combination of factors: the legal aid cuts, the housing crisis, through to policies like the benefit cap and the bedroom tax. They are are all coming together – often with severe implications for the mental health of our more vulnerable clients.”
Canning reports a 40% increase in demand for the law centre’s services since 2013. “We simply don’t have the capacity to deal with everyone,” he said. “For every person who calls our advice line, we reckon there might be five more people we can’t speak to.”
The Bach commission proposed a “Right to Justice Act”, which would create a new right for individuals to receive reasonable legal help without incurring costs they could not afford. According to Brooke, the commission’s “strongest message” to policymakers was for the reinstatement of early legal advice before problems started to escalate.
A 2010 Citizens Advice study estimated that for every £1 spent on housing advice, the state potentially saved £2.34, while for benefits advice, savings could amount to as much as £8.80 per pound spent.
The new WJP report – for which a representative sample of more than 1,000 people in each of 45 countries were consulted about their experiences and perceptions of justice – suggests that women are less confident in the UK justice system than men. Not only did more women (67%) experience a legal problem of any kind as compared to men (59%), but they also said they trusted the justice system less than their male counterparts.
Of those with ongoing legal problems, around two out of five (41%) women believed that they would get a fair outcome, compared to one in two men (50%). By contrast, roughly two-thirds of women in Norway (65%) and the USA (67%) felt confident that they would get a fair result.
“We are not surprised to see that women have lower trust in the legal system than men overall,” said Estelle du Boulay, director of the UK-based charity Rights of Women, which provides free legal advice to around 2,000 women per year across England and Wales. “However, we think this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a prevailing sense that the system is pitted against them on the basis of gender, for example in child contact hearings, separation processes or when reporting abuse.”
“Increasingly, we are also seeing the desperate situation that Laspo has left them in with regards to being forced to represent themselves and navigate complex processes virtually unsupported. We are also conscious of the additional barriers faced by BMER [black, minority ethnic and refugee] women due to structural discrimination and those with insecure immigration status because of the ‘hostile environment policy’, both of which lower confidence in obtaining access to justice and lead to underreporting of abuse.”
Other findings also emerge from the WJP data: 8% of UK respondents reported suffering harassment at work; one in 20 (5%) experienced difficulties related to bullying or harassment of their children at school; and one in 10 (10%) was behind on credit card payments, utility bills or loan repayments. Of those surveyed, 12% faced problems with gangs, vandalism, or the consumption of drugs or alcohol in their neighbourhood.
The WJP’s findings also suggest that nearly four out of 10 people in the UK (38%) who had exhausted all their options for taking action on a problem were dissatisfied with the outcome. This was despite the fact that over six in 10 (62%) believed that the outcome was mostly in their favour. By contrast, more than nine out of 10 people in Hong Kong (92%) and almost eight out of 10 (77%) in Denmark were satisfied with the outcome of their cases.
“When analysing satisfaction questions,” said Dr Alejandro Ponce, the WJP’s chief research officer, “it is important to bear in mind that people’s expectations will vary by socio-economic factors and across cultures.”