Leading Article: A disturbing admission in the High Court

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IT IS not every day that a British court identifies a grievous injustice but admits readily that there is nothing it can do about it. Yet that is what happened in the High Court in London yesterday.

The matter at hand was the Lord Chancellor's decision in March to save money by excluding 127,000 people from legal aid. His decision was widely attacked at the time; critics, among them this newspaper, warned that the cuts would compromise the principle that everyone, rich and poor, should have access to the legal system. Yet Lord Mackay pressed on regardless.

Since then, the Law Society, which represents 56,000 solicitors, has taken him to court, arguing that the cuts are incompatible with the declared purpose of the 1988 Legal Aid Act and should therefore be set aside. Legal challenges to the state's authority are rare enough. Yet the lawyers were not acting solely out of self-interest; few of those 127,000 people would have been able to finance a court challenge on their own.

Yesterday, the High Court found in favour of the Government. It told the solicitors that the cuts were 'not irrational', and reminded them that lots of people are still eligible for legal aid. But the two judges who heard the case damned the Lord Chancellor with faint praise. They said the cuts were 'clearly regrettable'; and they pointed out that there is now 'a very substantial fraction of the population for whom access to the civil courts . . . will be beyond their reach in practical terms'.

The Law Society may well appeal, so the case is not yet closed. But it is worth pausing to reflect to what a pass things have come when a judge of the High Court is forced to admit that if they want to go to law, more than 100,000 people will have to argue their cases themselves.