The UK’s most senior judge, Lord Neuberger, warns the removal of legal aid could potentially undermine the rule of law.

Legal aid in England and Wales will be restricted in a range of civil cases from April in order to cut up to £2 billion from the UK’s deficit. However, the UK’s most senior judge and president of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, has told the BBC that these changes will be detrimental to the court system, restrict access to justice for many litigants and will ultimately lead to higher court costs. The Ministry of Justice denies the allegations and has claimed that legal aid will still be provided to “those who most need it.”

The governments planned cuts will mean that people involved in a range of disputes, like social welfare debt, employment, family problems, clinical negligence, divorce and housing problems will no longer be eligible for legal aid when they consult a solicitor. However, funding will continue in certain cases, such as family law disputes where there is evidence of domestic violence or forced marriage and debt and housing matters where someone’s home is at immediate risk. In all other cases most people will in future have to pay privately for advice, find charitable help or represent themselves in trying to solve their disputes.

Yet Lord Neuberger believes the consequences of this policy could in fact end up costing the government significantly more in the longer term. He told BBC journalists:

“My worry is the removal of legal aid for people to get advice about law and get representation in court will start to undermine the rule of law because people will feel like the government isn’t giving them access to justice in all sorts of cases. And that will either lead to frustration and lack of confidence in the system, or it will lead to people taking the law into their own hands.”

Lord Neuberger also claimed another consequence of the government changes will be that more people with no access to legal aid will choose to represent themselves in court:

“This will mean that court hearings will last longer, and the burden on court staff and judges will increase. You may find the savings the government thinks it’s making in legal aid will be offset in other costs of courts and judges and court staff in supporting litigants in person.”

However Tory MP Sir Edward Garnier, a former solicitor general, told the BBC that these fears were ungrounded and that there was no reason why any particular group should be immune from welfare cuts. Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme he argued that many disputes could actually be resolved without going to court:

“Now I’m not suggesting that, in every case, a landlord and tenant problem can be sorted out through some form of mediation or through some form of extra-legal means. But I think we need to be careful not always to run to the lawyer when we think we’ve got a problem.”

Shadow justice minister Lord Bach, the former legal aid minister, accepted that mediation could be used in more cases but maintained that this also came at a price. He told Today that:

“At a time of recession and also at a time now of big welfare reform, to take away the ability of people to get free legal advice when they need it is absolutely scandalous. [Cuts should not be made] where you’re attacking, frankly, the very poorest and the most disadvantaged in society. Our whole system of justice is based on equality of law – if people can’t get some access to justice then why should people believe in the rule of law anymore.”

In a statement the Ministry of Justice said:

“Legal aid will continue to be provided to those who most need it, such as where domestic violence is involved, where people’s life or liberty is at stake or the loss of their home.”

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