The president of the Supreme Court has urged the government to tread very carefully when considering whether to restrict the ability of people to bring judicial reviews.
Speaking at a press conference to mark the start of the legal year, Lord Neuberger also warned about the dangers of litigants in person clogging up the courts in the wake of legal aid cuts.
Though he acknowledged that there may be abuses which need to be addressed, the judge said that “any proposals which limit or cut down or risk limiting or cutting down the rights of the citizen to come to court to complain about infringement of his or her rights by the state or any attempts to reduce the ability, to kerb excesses, of the executive through the courts have be to be looked at with great care”.
On legal aid, Lord Neuberger said that if a potential litigant cannot get legal representation or even legal advice, “they are faced with two unpalatable choices” – to give up or to represent themselves and be at a disadvantage if the other side is legally represented.
“Court proceedings are often unfriendly to someone who has not been to court,” he said. “The consequence is that it is unfair to them and the consequence for the system is that the hearing will normally take much longer.
“Court staff time will be taken up because they will have to be given advice much more and actually the hearing time will be taken up, which means (a) our court systems become clogged up and (b) other people's cases do not get heard. All this is of concern.
“I think that legal aid cuts therefore do cause any person concerned with the rule of law worry. Having said that, it is totally unrealistic not to acknowledge that the government has economic problems, and that inevitably leads to cuts in all sorts of areas, and, secondly, to say that the duty not only lies with the government but there are concomitant duties on judges and on the legal profession to do its best to deal with these problems.”
Also at the briefing, Lady Hale, the deputy president of the Supreme Court, told the media that while she was proud to have become the first woman appointed as a Law Lord, she was disappointed that in the 10 years since, “not one among the 13 subsequent appointments to this court has been a woman”.
She suggested that one problem was the lack of diversity among those who are consulted during the selection process for new Supreme Court justice.
“I think of the people who have to be consulted, I am the only woman. I do not know whether the fact that the appointments process is dominated by men has anything to do with the choice of people. It would not be impossible to speculate that it is always much easier to perceive merit in people who are like you than it is to discern the merit of those who are a bit different.
“I am not only talking about gender diversity, I am talking about all kinds of diversity. There is ethic diversity, there is professional diversity, there are all sorts of measures on which, to my mind, diversity will be a good thing.”
Lady Hale also said “we could look much more broadly for top-calibre lawyers to be members of especially this court because we are not trial judges. We are deciding high points of principle. That is one of the reasons why diversity of values and experience is particularly important. We could look much more broadly”.