UK's top judge Lord Neuberger, the Supreme Court President, attacks Government on legal aid cuts, secret courts and human rights threats

President of Supreme Court says equality before the law is at risk of disappearing

The Government is in danger of destroying a 700-year-old right of access to fair and open justice to all, the most senior judge in the land has said.

Challenging plans to cut back dramatically on legal aid for hundreds of thousands of people from April, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury said: "As one of the three remaining articles of the Magna Carta (1297) says "to no man shall we deny justice", nowadays "to no man and no woman shall we deny justice", and we are at risk of going back on that."

In a week when both the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, and the Home Secretary, Theresa May, have attacked human rights legislation, proposing a distancing from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Lord Neuberger added that he was uncomfortable with political attacks on the judiciary and the fact that human rights were gaining an unfair reputation.

The former Master of the Rolls, speaking out for the first time since his appointment as President of the Supreme Court, the highest court in the United Kingdom, said :"The two fundamental roles of Government are to defend the country from invasion and ensure the rule of law at home, and that includes access to justice."

He aired particular fears about the fact that from next month thousands of people will no longer have access to free legal advice for issues such as many family disputes, employment or immigration cases, and debt or housing problems. In an attempt to cut the legal-aid bill by £270m, the Government has withdrawn funding for numerous categories of civil and family law and, by its own estimates, as many as 585,000 people will be affected.

Lord Neuberger said his main worry was that those who could not afford to pay for a legal representative would have to rely on free advice being offered by the Government and charities, which was "second best". In the worst cases, he fears that those frustrated by an inability to seek justice would "take the law into their own hands".

While sympathising with the Government's need to cut costs, he questioned whether slashing legal-aid budgets would eventually prove to be a false saving. "Litigants representing themselves take much more time in court. The danger is that what you save on legal-aid budgets, you lose in terms of court efficiency. It will lead to longer delays in court hearings and spending more money on courts."

The Government has been at loggerheads with Strasbourg over a series of judgments, including blocking the deportation of the radical cleric Abu Qatada and ruling that some prisoners must be given the vote.

Lord Neuberger explained that while he understood some of the objections to ECHR rulings, a system as "broad and far-reaching as human rights" was bound to generate some controversy and some tough decisions.

"The problem is the devil is in the detail in hard cases where it is difficult to balance competing rights," he said. "I can see the argument of sending them [terrorist suspects] back if they are a threat to this country. But if you send somebody back knowing they are going to be tortured, it makes you responsible for torture."

He said it was hard to foresee whether such criticism of Europe would rebound on the UK judiciary: "It is difficult to predict whether, if they are busy attacking judges in Strasbourg, they will happily attack any judge or if they will focus their attacks on foreign judges."

Nevertheless, he added: "From time to time Home Secretaries have attacked individual judicial decisions. It is unfortunate and should not happen. It is not good for the system.

"If ministers don't like our decisions they have two options, one is to appeal; and if they don't like the result, they can change the law by statute.

"When ministers attack judges it risks bringing judges into disrepute – which does nobody any good – and it is unfair because judges cannot answer back. It is bad for the whole constitutional state when different arms start attacking each other."

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: "At around £2bn a year, we have one of the most expensive legal-aid systems in the world. We firmly believe it is an essential part of the justice system, but can never lose sight of the fact it is paid for by taxpayers, and resources are not limitless. We recognise that the advice sector plays an important role in the legal system and we have recently made available £65m in funding for eligible organisations."

Speaking to the Independent about secret courts, Lord Neuberger insisted that open justice meant that as little as possible should be heard in secret.

He revealed that he was “uncomfortable” with aspects of the Government proposals for secret courts. The controversial plans for closed material procedures (CMPs), which ministers insist are necessary to fight cases of national security which would have to be otherwise abandoned for fear of revealing secret intelligence, have been repeatedly attacked by lawyers and human rights groups as a “radical departure from fundamental common law traditions”.

While he said he understood that there remained a limited need for secret hearings – such as the requirement to withhold evidence from the intelligence services relating to a potential terrorist – he said he found it particularly difficult to contemplate a scenario where the Government was allowed to withhold evidence from the opposition.

“It is completely contrary to fair justice,” he said. “Any person, judge, lawyer or non lawyer who really looked into the problem would be uncomfortable with it. Whatever answer you come up with, it is going to be difficult.”

“Most people accept it may be necessary in cases of national interest for some sort of secret procedure," he continued but added: "A judge should ultimately decide whether evidence is so sensitive. The government is going to want to keep things secret but judges are used to carrying out the balancing exercise."

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?