The president of the Supreme Court has warned that denying access to the courts could create an exploitative society that might ultimately fail - and he called on lawyers to help ensure the justice system works.
Delivering the first Harbour Litigation Funding lecture, Lord Neuberger said the state has a duty to provide ‘fair and clear laws equally applicable to all, a legal system readily available to all, and an effective and efficient court structure readily accessible to all.
‘It must, in other words, secure the rule of law.’
He said that the introduction of legal aid in 1949 was the most important piece of legislation to ensure that ordinary citizens had access to the courts.
In a rebuke to the government’s plans to make further cuts to the legal aid budget, Neuberger warned that limiting access to the courts to a ‘limited class of society’, undermines the notion of an inclusive society and increases the potential for society to ‘fail’.
He said: ‘In order for a state to remain inclusive it must not just express a commitment to the rule of law: it must provide effective mechanisms through which its citizens have genuine access to the courts.
‘Only then can they begin to have equality before the law; only then can they hold the powerful to account; only then can they render their legal rights a true reality rather than words on paper.’
He added: ‘If all members of society cannot gain genuine access to the courts, then the possibility exists for society to become exploitative, as some elements take advantage of the fact that they can ignore the law with relative impunity.’
Neuberger said he accepted that the pressures on government finances are ‘very great’, but he stressed that access to justice is ‘of the essence in a civilised society’.
Lawyers, especially advocates, have a duty to the legal system which extends not just to working in it and warning the legislature and the executive about risks, but also to help ensure that it functions properly.
He noted the opposition to the government’s criminal legal aid reforms, including the possibility of strikes by barristers, and urged them to come up with alternative proposals.
‘I appreciate that many may feel that the irreducible minimum is fast approaching or has even been reached, but, rather than talking about the end of the bar, barristers and other advocates should be working out how to ensure it survives,’ he said.
‘Of all professions, advocates should be able to adapt to realities, and to live through the present vicissitudes,’ he said.
Neuberger said that all those involved in the legal system - litigators and judges, have a role to play in improving access to justice.
In some cases, he said ‘quick and rough justice is better than no justice’ adding that in some circumstances that might even mean ‘better justice’.
Read the full speech.