There are legions of fat-cat legal aid lawyers living off the cream of the land in Britain, or so certain newspapers have been telling us for years. And those papers may be right: as recently as 2010 the UK genuinely did pay out more in legal aid than any other country in Europe.
In that same year, our judiciary was second only to Azerbaijan for having the highest proportion of male judges, which was one in the eye for the ‘political correctness gone mad’ that we were told characterised our public services.
Our senior (mostly male) judges were overpaid when compared with most of the rest of Europe, this despite the number of professional judges in England and Wales falling by more than a quarter between 2006 and 2010.
Where do these figures come from? The Council of Europe (CoE), in the guise of its European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice, recently published a lengthy report based on 2010 data comparing the efficiency and quality of the justice systems in 46 of its 47 member states. Only Liechtenstein, apparently, was unable to provide the required information.
The report’s authors are careful not to compare like with unlike. For example, they say it would be meaningless to compare the CoE’s smallest states – such as Andorra or San Marino – according to a scale per 100,000 inhabitants against much larger states such as the Russian Federation or Germany.
And since you are probably itching to know, the populations in July 2006 of Andorra and San Marino were both 300,000, while the Russian Federation weighed in with 143m and Germany with 82.6m.
The report also warns that it is misleading to rank nations, where some countries are wealthy and others are still emerging, by the proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) that each allocates to its judicial system. A small proportion of Monaco’s GDP, for instance, goes further than a somewhat larger proportion of Moldova’s. But enough of these caveats – let’s get back to the meat of the report.
In 2010, England & Wales granted an average of £2,831 per case in legal aid. Second and third in the rankings were Ireland at £1,077 and Austria at £820, which should give at least some of us a warm glow about how much we as a nation used to be willing to invest in access to justice for people who couldn’t afford to pay for it.
When it came to the number of cases that received legal aid, we fared less well compared with some other states – but then we were paying out a lot more per case. We allowed legal aid for 1,286 cases per 100,000 people, which was substantially lower than the Netherlands on 3,074, Monaco on 1,985 and Finland, Lithuania, Portugal, Ireland and France.
In 2010, we had the third lowest number of professional judges sitting in courts for every 100,000 inhabitants compared with the rest of the CoE’s member states. We had 3.6 judges, whereas Scotland had just 3.5 and Ireland just 3.2. In contrast, Germany had 34.3, the Russian Federation 22.6 and Ukraine 18.3. Except, again, different states define the status and functions of their ‘judges’ differently and so care must be taken only to compare like with like.
Some 77% of professional judges in England & Wales in 2010 were men, a proportion beaten only by Scotland with 79% and by Azerbaijan – the first Muslim nation to give women political equality with men – which romped home with 91%.
Gross annual salaries for Supreme Court judges (or their equivalent) in 2010 were highest in Switzerland at £210,500. Ireland came in at second place with £205,620, while we were third with a mere £193,945.
Why did we pay our senior judges such a paltry sum? Because we were shelling out so much on legal aid, of course…
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