Access to justice ‘very much at risk’ – Neuberger

Topics: Courts business,Government & politics,Human rights,Judicial

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  • Lord Neuberger

The increased cost and complexity of litigation coupled with the shrinking of legal aid means that access to justice is ‘very much at risk’, the president of the Supreme Court has said. 

In a speech to the Northern Ireland Assembly’s justice committee, posted on the Supreme Court website, Lord Neuberger (pictured) addressed what he called ‘the vexed question of access to justice in an age of austerity’.


A combination of the rising cost of legal services and spending cuts creates ‘something of a perfect storm’, he said. However he described as ‘good news’ proposals to streamline the system of litigating smaller claims and backed the government’s plan to reform courts in England and Wales. 

Neuberger’s speech, which ranged from IT strategy to the question of judicial activism, also defended his recent statement that the UK does not have a constitution.

‘The short answer to that point is, as it is with so many arguments, that it depends what you mean by a constitution,’ he said. ‘On any view, the UK does not have a coherent or embedded constitution; it has some constitutional conventions and some quasi-constitutional statutes, and they are conventions and statutes which can be changed or repealed by parliament.’

Parliamentary sovereignty in turn means that complaints about ‘unelected judges’ thwarting the will of democratically elected governments are misguided, he said.

However he admitted that the Supreme Court had inevitably assumed a more visible constitutional role than its predecessor, the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. 

He passed quickly over ‘the best-known aspect of our expansion’, human rights, in the light of what he called a ‘rather feverish’ political climate. However he pointed out that devolution has also increased the court’s role.

‘In the event of a dispute or a challenge, the Supreme Court now decides whether the power to legislate in a particular area or on a certain topic has been devolved or whether it remains at Westminster. That is a constitutional role on any view.’

Neuberger also contrasted the style of common law judgments with those of the European Court of Justice, where he said justices ‘have to give a single, unanimous judgment, even if some of them disagree’.

As a result, their judgments are ‘not infrequently internally inconsistent, and occasionally evade the legal question actually raised in order to arrive at a mutually acceptable product’. By contrast the multiplicity of rulings in the common law system can be confusing and tedious, ‘but, whatever else may be said about it, our system produces more entertaining and stylish judgments’.

Readers' comments (30)

  • I'm sorry.... the rising cost of court services?

    We're not talking about Mergers and Acquistions here.... but we are talking about about civil litigation that is now budgeted, personal injury that is subject to an amputation. not shaving of costs - and other work such as family where the market is now fixing fees.

    Where do these people get their information from?!?

    Yes costs have risen - because of massive, massive rises in court fees - £10,000 to issue a case worth £200k or more? That's lots of TOLATA type disputes, serious injury claims, and debt cases where companies are struggling.

    My fee income is nowhere near where it was 10 years ago because of reform after reform after reform - and now we're told that costs are being budgeted up to £250,000?

    What rising costs? I have seen them plummet over a deacde!!!!!!

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  • ...apologies *legal services - not court services - they have risen!

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  • My Lord, For the vast majority of people it does not exist at all. It is simply unaffordable. That, together with the risk of having to pay the other side's costs, which can happen for a number of 'innocent' reasons, makes me give my clients some very stern advice, and ask for lots of money up front, in an attempt to dissuade them. And I know there is little chance of getting any out of them if they lose.

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  • Wait util the SRA and the 'reforms' by way of ABS's and MDP's have put out of business many of the smaller practices.

    Then we are going to have some excitingly large legal costs for those left in the 'market' (who are not insurers or banks or supermarkets of course) ...

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  • I'm afraid m'lud that access to justice is not ‘very much at risk’. It has been utterly trashed. It is a dead parrot. We used to be something other societies looked up. Now our systems of justice are approaching Banana Republic status. The terrifying thing about it has been both the speed and comprehensive nature of its destruction across all areas of law.

    And after all this we STILL have the zealots in the Government and MoJ who continue to issue guff about needing to make further savings.

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  • All this flannel about having no Constitution and the over selling of the 'Supreme Court, hmmmm

    Sounds like a well thought out propaganda piece to me, so I ain't buying none of it.

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  • Who makes the rules? Not me. Who dices and splices procedural law into ever finer parts thereby increasing complexity and, much, much worse - unpredictability? Why, the judges! Try finding out whether the rules that deem service of a claim form deem only the date of service of also the fact of it. Litigation becomes more complicated because the wrong people control (and then bleat about) it.

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  • At the rate things are moving, the time will soon be upon us, when a Time Traveller from the Victorian era, and before, will be of the view that the Law has not changed a jot, and that, like then, "Justice" will only be available to the Very Rich and privileged few, and no one else

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  • Ever since the Jackson reforms back in 2013 decent commercial work has all but disapperaed for the average high street practice. The cliche "access to justice" is nothing less than a joke and depite the courts being over run by LIP the government continues to hack away at the corpse of "access to justice" until its last breath is exhaled. Unless you are very rich or a multi National or a bank England is no longer the place to seek any Justice!

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  • I received a court order today transferring a stage 3 rta protocol hearing to Part 7 and allocating it to the SCT. The cost of the part 8 was £280 + of course the £216 medical report. On the transfer to Part 7 the court has ordered a further payment now of £175 for the difference in the issue fee between the Part 8 and Part 7 proceedings, together with a further payment of £335 for the SCT hearing. To bring this SCT claim will cost £1006, and this where liability is admitted. Don't know of many LIPs who can afford that! (as an aside the allocation is wrong and will be challenged, but if the SCT increases to £5k then the allocation would be right).

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