Lord Donaldson, who is stepping down as Master of the Rolls in September, aimed the first shots with a fierce attack on the Government for failing to appoint more judges to the Court of Appeal.
The Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, was forced to sit beside Lord Donaldson as he warned that waiting times for criminal and civil appeals would inevitably worsen without ministerial action.
This was followed by an equally hostile speech from another appeal court judge, Lord Justice Parker, who condemned the decision to award the judiciary pay rises of only 4 per cent - as opposed to the 19.4 per cent recommended by the Top Salaries Review. This could imperil the 'high quality of the judiciary'.
Lord Donaldson's comments came during his farewell gathering, at which the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, was among those paying tribute to the man who succeeded Lord Denning as Master of the Rolls 10 years ago.
Speaking to a courtroom packed with the most senior judges in England and Wales, Lord Donaldson fired the latest salvo in an increasingly acrimonious debate over judicial recruitment.
'I have no doubt that it is my duty to inform and warn both the Government and the public if the level of resources is such that the standard of service which the Court can offer is likely to decline or is in fact declining,' he said.
His concerns are shared by other senior judges, including Lord Taylor, who recently spoke of long delays in the criminal division of the Court of Appeal. Both men say waiting times can only be curbed by the appointment of many more judges.
Lord Donaldson said that in the civil division, which he heads, 'the situation is now far worse than I had ever expected'. The number of outstanding appeals had risen from 989 to 1,130 in the past 12 months, probably leading to a 12.5 per cent increase in waiting times, he said.
With Appeal Court judges increasingly diverted to deal with criminal cases, the 'civil division may be confined to hearing the more urgent appeals, leaving the rest to wait for very long periods of time'.
According to Lord Justice Parker, the Government might not be able to appoint high quality judges, even if it wished to do so. Pay levels had fallen so far that many lawyers were not interested in appointment to the bench, which was often seen as 'second choice'.
Under the 4 per cent increase, High Court judges will see their salaries rise from pounds 84,250 to pounds 87,620. However, Lord Justice Parker said that even if the 19.4 per cent recommendation had been accepted, judicial earnings would have fallen in real terms since 1985.
The Government might think that quality of the judiciary could be maintained at present salary levels - or it might not care, he said. 'But the public surely will, because the high quality of the judiciary is the only protection against abuse of power.'
Earlier, Lord Taylor had spoken of Lord Donaldson's 'illustrious career', which had 'shaped the law and defined it in many fields'. He reserved particular praise for the reforms introduced by Lord Donaldson to streamline and speed up courtroom procedures.
A high-flying barrister and then judge, Lord Donaldson had been asked to chair the National Industrial Relations Court, set up by Edward Heath in the 1970s. This had aroused hostility from the left and delayed Lord Donaldson's promotion to the Court of Appeal - the only example of 'political influence over judicial appointments in living memory', according to Lord Taylor.