Britain's most senior judge has warned the Government that its proposed cuts to the legal aid budget could mean “a rank denial of justice” for vulnerable people.
Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, President of the Supreme Court, also criticised plans by ministers to restrict the right of individuals to challenge decisions by public authorities in the courts through judicial review. He warned that governments are bringing forward a “welter of ill-conceived legislation” that is “poor in quality and voluminous in quantity.”
Giving the Tom Sargant memorial annual lecture to the Justice law reform group, Lord Neuberger put himself at odds with Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, who is seeking to cut the £2bn-a-year legal aid bill in England and Wales by £350m a year. He said: “Cutting the cost of legal aid deprives the very people who most need the protection of the courts of the ability to get legal advice and representation. That is true whether one reduces the types of claim which qualify for legal aid or increases the stringency of the requirements of eligibility for legal aid. The recent changes have done both.”
The head of the Supreme Court warned: “If a person with a potential claim cannot get legal aid, there are two possible consequences. The first is that the claim is dropped: that is a rank denial of justice and a blot on the rule of law. The second is that the claim is pursued, in which case it will be pursued inefficiently, and will take up much more of the court staffs' time and of the judge's time in and out of court. So that it means greater costs for the court system, and delay for other litigants.”
Lord Neuberger urged ministers to be “very careful” about proposals to cut down the right to judicial review. “The courts have no more important function than that of protecting citizens from the abuses and excesses of the executive - central government, local government, or other public bodies,” he said.