12:56, November 24 70 0 theguardian.com

2018-11-24 12:56:13
Legal aid cuts are 'huge threat' to access to justice in UK

Justice and the rule of law in the UK are at risk because of political decisions that threaten to undermine the independence of the judiciary, the chair of the Bar Council has claimed in a bombshell speech that underscores a deep anger coursing through the legal profession.

Andrew Walker QC used his speech to the Annual Bar and Young Bar Conference on Saturday to say: “In truth, in the last two decades, we have been following a course that has set its face against justice, by political design, political folly and political expediency.”

Cuts to legal aid represent “a huge threat to access to justice in our country,” Walker said. “If we can no longer deliver access to justice of which we can be proud – even worse, if our systems of family and criminal justice start to fail – then our justice and rule of law are at risk.”

He cited research rebutting claims that funding cuts were the inevitable consequence of a decade of austerity. “You might also think that the cuts to justice are comparable to the experiences across all publicly funded services,” Walker said. “You might think that, but you would again be wrong.”

He pointed out that in the past decade, the economy and government spending have grown by 13% in real terms. Health spending, in contrast, has risen by 25% in real terms.

“Justice, by contrast – by which I mean our prisons, courts, judges, prosecutors and legal aid – has gone the other way,” Walker said. “It has been cut by 27% in real terms – and yet it amounts to just 1% of total spending by the taxpayer. The damage has been reduced only by huge hikes in court fees.”

The comments reflect mounting concern about cuts to the legal system and the impact they are having on access to justice.

Referring to they way the justice system in the UK had taken centuries to evolve, Walker said: “Just because something is longstanding does not mean that it, or the people in it, are unbreakable.”

For those who thought otherwise, Walker pointed out that the independence of judges in Poland and the US was now under threat and that lawyers around the world were regularly subject to oppressive state action.

“The independence of judges and lawyers, and the rule of law that they protect, are our most precious inheritance,” Walker said. “So too is a system of justice in which our citizens can have confidence. But our politicians and the public have a choice to make. They must make it wisely. If they take all this for granted, then I fear that we will all pay the price.”

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