It comes as little surprise that the rule of law and access to justice were not front and centre of any political party’s manifesto

Begun, the manifesto wars have. Launched from safe political silos across the country, the parties vying for your vote on 7 May have been flaunting their proposed policies in the press and hoping to hit it big with the British public.

Those of us willing to comb through pages upon pages of pledges, promises, and vows would eventually find the specific commitments made by the main political parties in relation to justice issues. It will come as little surprise to those in the legal profession that the rule of law and access to justice were not front and centre of any manifesto. However, some did provide welcome proposals for lawyers.

Instead, other matters were deemed more important, such as housing, health, welfare, and immigration. It is on this last emotive topic that I recently attended a seminar, hosted by international law firm Fragomen, which considered the impact of the general election on skilled migration.

Giving an overview of public attitudes to immigration in the UK, Bobby Duffy, the managing director of the social research institute Ipsos MORI, demonstrated that the public is under a ‘massive’ misconception of immigration as being a problem.

A recent survey revealed the public believes that 24 per cent of the UK’s population are immigrants. In reality, immigrants make up just 13 per cent of the population.

The study went further. At a time when Islamophobia remains a hot-button issue, the average Briton is of the belief that 21 per cent of the UK’s population are Muslim. The truth is that just 5 per cent of the population identify themselves as such.

Yet another example of public misconceptions involves the level of teenage pregnancy per annum. Figures show that each year 3 per cent of teenagers in the UK become pregnant. However, the average Brit believes that figure to be five times higher.

It is easy, as Duffy pointed out, to attribute these results to ‘the Daily Mail effect’. Any reading of the tabloid press would have Joe Public believe that the influx of foreign nationals was the migratory equivalent of a pandemic far worse than the latest killer heatwave or exotic strain of bird flu fresh from Asia.

Lawyers have long seen the press distort the public’s perception of decisions handed down from the European Court of Human Rights. While the Strasbourg court finds against the UK government in approximately 1.35 per cent of cases, certain elements of Fleet Street would have the public believe that foreign judges are carpet-bombing Westminster’s parliamentary sovereignty on an almost hourly basis.

Why do I mention the above? Not to disparage the importance of the immigration debate or the issues relating to housing, health, and welfare, but one would have thought that in a week in which a YouGov poll found that access to justice was of greater concern to the public than free healthcare or a state pension, our politicians could have made more of a song and dance about justice issues.

Perhaps the political elite will take more notice next week when members of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA) descend on Westminster for its ‘Vote for Justice’ rally. It may be the last chance campaigners have to show that attacks upon legal aid – as well as other reforms to the legal system under the coalition – are an election issue that truly matters.

This blog post was first published in Solicitors Journal on 17 April 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission

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