Tag Archive | "the northern ireland assembly justice committee"

The vexed question of access to justice


In a wide ranging speech to the Northern Ireland Assembly’s justice committee last week, Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, addressed what he called “the vexed question of access to justice in an age of austerity.”

The increased cost and complexity of litigation coupled with the shrinking of legal aid means that access to justice is “very much at risk,” he said.

In his view “Challenges and difficulties are also opportunities. But we have to face the fact that we are in something of a perfect storm. Legal services are increasingly very expensive and increasingly unaffordable to ordinary people. At the same time, government money to support the courts and legal aid is in very short supply.”

“There are a number of reasons why legal services are expensive,” he said. “First, UK lawyers (like UK judges) are of outstanding quality in global terms, and quality and cost are closely connected. Secondly, in this electronic age, litigation and legal advice involve a great deal of potentially relevant documentation to be collated and considered, and there is a plethora of reported legal cases for legal advisers and judges to consider. Thirdly, reflecting society’s attitude more generally, we are increasingly concerned with due process, which means that the trial process is increasingly expensive.”

Steps are being taken in England and Wales in the form of streamlining and tightening up litigation procedures generally. This enables judges to control costs and hearing times more proactively, increasing the types and size of claims which can be heard in the small claims court and those where only fixed costs are recoverable from the loser. “I understand that the Bar of England and Wales are investigating the possibility of introducing a streamlined system of litigating smaller claims, which is also good news,” he said.

“At the same time, the Government is proposing to make available a large sum of money to overhaul both the physical and the electronic infrastructure of the courts. There will be fewer but larger and more modern court buildings throughout the UK, and the antiquated and fissiparous IT systems in the courts will be replaced by a modern system,” he added.

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. 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.

Comparing the UK and European style of common law judgments he said in the UK an appeal court is a number of judges “who happen to be sitting in the same tribunal: hence every judge is free to give a full judgment of their own. The European system only has one judgment to read in every case, but their judgments are not infrequently internally inconsistent, and occasionally evade the legal question actually raised in order to arrive at a mutually acceptable product.”

He concluded: “The multiplicity of judgments you can get in our system can be confusing and tedious, but, whatever else may be said about it, our system produces more entertaining and stylish judgments.”

A more forthright view of Lord Neuberger’s speech is contained in an anonymous contribution to the ‘Law Gazette’:

“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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