UK legal aid cuts could undermine rule of law, says top judge

LONDON Tue Mar 5, 2013 3:36pm GMT

President of the Supreme Court, David Neuberger (L), walks with fellow judges to Westminster Abbey for a service to mark the start of the legal year, London October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

President of the Supreme Court, David Neuberger (L), walks with fellow judges to Westminster Abbey for a service to mark the start of the legal year, London October 1, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Luke MacGregor

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LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's plans to limit access to taxpayer-funded legal advice and representation could undermine the rule of law, the country's most senior judge warned on Tuesday.

The government hopes to save about 350 million pounds ($530 million) from its 2 billion pound annual bill for legal aid by removing public funding in many areas of civil law, including family disputes, employment, welfare, as well as some debt and housing issues.

The changes, due to come into effect in April, will mean people will have to fund their own legal advice, seek help from a charity or represent themselves.

The Citizens Advice Bureau, a charity that helps people with legal and financial issues, estimated that 650,000 people a year who received help through legal aid would no longer be eligible.

Lord David Neuberger, president of the Supreme Court, Britain's highest judicial body, said the cuts risked damaging faith in the democratic system.

"My worry is the removal of legal aid for people who get advice about law and get representation in court will start to undermine the rule of law because people will feel that the government isn't giving them access to justice in all sorts of cases," he told the BBC.

"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."

The government, which is looking to make deep spending cuts across the public sector to tackle a large budget deficit, says its reforms will protect access to justice while making significant savings.

It says legal aid will be reserved for criminal cases, and for serious civil cases such as those involving domestic violence, and for debt and housing matters where someone's home is at immediate risk.

Neuberger, 65, also criticised Home Secretary (interior minister) Theresa May for publicly accusing judges of subverting British democracy and making Britain more dangerous by ignoring rules governing the deportation of foreign offenders.

Speaking in media interviews broadcast and published on Tuesday, he said ministers should appeal against judges' decisions if they were unhappy, or ultimately change the law.

"For ministers to attack judges in public undermines public confidence, probably in both ministers and judges, and is unfair because the judges can't and certainly shouldn't reply, so it becomes a one-way argument," said Neuberger, who became president of the Supreme Court in October.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Pravin Char)

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