A senior judge has urged the City of London to consider funding access to justice for vulnerable people, or risk permanent damage to the UK’s peerless reputation for upholding the rule of law.
Lady Justice Hallett, vice president of the Court of Appeal Criminal Division, warned that London’s overseas competitors are ready to exploit the impact of public funding cuts which have sullied the reputation of England and Wales as a pre-eminent global jurisdiction.
Hallett was keynote speaker at the Bar Council’s 125th anniversary celebrations, held at London’s Guildhall last night. She was the bar's first female chair, in 1998.
In a speech highly critical of government reforms ranging from regulation to legal aid cuts, Hallett LJ urged lawyers to defend both their professional independence and the public interest. She also condemned repeated media attacks on the profession, warning that their ‘drip-drip’ effect on public confidence erodes trust in the legal system.
Hallett said many of the profession’s worst fears over the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 have been realised. In particular, judges are struggling to cope with a tsunami of litigants in person.
She said: ’If LASPO is not to be repealed, we have to explore new ways to provide representation for the most vulnerable in their civil and family claims. And we have to persuade the government that the criminal justice system must not be allowed to perish.’
Hallett LJ described the amount of money needed to improve the publicly funded justice system as ‘tiny’, adding: ’I have long promoted a contingent legal aid fund [CLAF] as one of way of providing funding for meritorious civil cases, but so far the project has stalled, probably for lack of capital to establish it. It may be the City of London might wish to explore the possibility, given there seems to be money to be made in the funding of litigation these days.’
In 2016 the Law Society, Bar Council and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives set up a working group to examine the viability of a CLAF, following a call from Lord Justice Jackson for exploratory work. According to Jackson’s plan, such a fund would generate income by funding some ‘ordinary’ commercial and non-commercial cases, but would also fund some ‘deserving’ cases for individuals of modest means, at the fund’s discretion. However, initial work on the project generated mixed views over the nature, purpose and viablity of such a fund.
Four years ago the then lord chancellor Michael Gove had floated the idea of a levy on City law firms to fund legal aid, but this came to nothing.
Hallett warned the City last night: ’One cannot assume that cuts to public funding of litigation will only affect vulnerable individuals and the lawyers who represent them. Ultimately, the undermining of any part of the justice system will undermine the whole of it. With that there’ll be an undermining of the promotion of the UK as a place of stability and where the rule of law flourishes.
’Our competitors in places like Singapore, Hong Kong and elsewhere are not stupid. They can spot weaknesses and they can advertise them. They have already done so in response to reforms of the legal system that have already taken place here.’