Supreme court judges ‘very worried’ that £350m economies may affect access to justice
Supreme court judges fear legal aid cuts will restrict access to justice Link to this video
Legal aid cuts aimed at saving £350m a year will result in courts being deluged by people without lawyers and will restrict access to justice, some of the country’s most senior judges have told the Guardian.
Concerns voiced by supreme court justices about the government’s legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill come as the legislation is due to return to the Commons next week.
Interviewed at the supreme court, the senior judges acknowledged the legislation was a political decision but cautioned that it would nonetheless cause difficulties and add to costs in the courts.
“The court of appeal now is being deluged by litigants in person which is a product of the absence of legal aid and that creates a logjam in itself,” said Lord Hope of Craighead, a Scottish justice who is deputy president of the supreme court.
“It doesn’t affect us [in the supreme court] but lower down the system it has a major effect. I well understand the huge concern about public expense but people who take these decisions must understand that narrowing legal aid has a cost implication on the system and its efficiency and quality.”
The government’s proposals to prune spending will mean legal aid is no longer available across a wide range of areas, including cases involving medical negligence, housing, welfare, divorce, child custody, employment and debt.
The justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has said that he wants to get rid of the “compensation culture” that flourished under the Labour government.
Lord Dyson, another supreme court judge, said he was “very worried” about access to justice for those who wanted to take judicial reviews or challenge tribunals. “I don’t see how contingency fee arrangements can work for those sorts of cases,” he said.
The appearance of more “litigants in person” who take their own cases without legal representation was “a big concern”, Dyson added. “There are some very good litigants in person but there are an awful lot who, understandably, don’t know what they are doing. They feel frustrated, angry. They are not lawyers. They take masses of bad points. They waste a lot of the court’s time. And it’s a growing trend.”
Lady Hale, the only woman justice in the supreme court, said: “Obviously there are political decisions to be made. One understands that resources are extremely limited and that cuts have to be made. Those are political choices.
“The judges, of course, worry about the extent to which denying people access to legal representation and legal advice will … change radically the role of the court in seeking to do justice. I think all the judges are worried about this.”
Lord Mance, who said that he couldn’t comment on “the particular governmental policy”, pointed out the UK had a “very expensive” legal system and that “as the government points to, we do spend a lot of money on legal aid”. But he added: “One way or other, we have to take very seriously the question of access to justice.”