Page last updated at 12:24 GMT, Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Lack of UK justice risks 'mayhem'

By Clive Coleman
Law in Action, BBC Radio 4

The Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge
Lord Judge became Lord Chief Justice for England and Wales a year ago

Denying people access to justice could lead to civil disorder and violence, a senior judge has told the BBC.

The Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge says he fears the impact of potential civil claimants being priced out of the justice system.

A wide-ranging review of the cost of civil court cases is due to report by December.

In response, the Ministry of Justice said it hoped to ensure greater access to legal aid for civil cases.

Talking to BBC Radio 4's Law in Action programme, the lord chief justice said that there was a "very serious problem" in the way that civil justice was developing in England and Wales.

We want to shift the balance to civil legal aid
Bridget Prentice, Ministry of Justice

"It is one of the reasons why we are part of society; that society should provide us with a place in which to resolve our disputes," he said.

"The alternative is mayhem. The alternative is, if nobody else will help me, I will have to find someone to throw bricks through windows, or worse.

"You end up with the peace being broken and you end up with crimes being committed, crimes of violence."

He said it would not be acceptable if people could not afford to go to court.


The overall cost of taking cases to the civil courts in England and Wales has risen in the last few years.

In a so-called 'fast track' case, where the sum at stake is between £5,000 and £15,000, a claimant can typically face a bill of around £1,500 for court fees alone, not including any lawyers' fees which could amount to three or four times that.

Law in Action BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 27 October at 1600 GMT
Or listen via the BBC iPlayer
Or download the free podcast

The civil county court system is self-funding so must pay for itself from fees paid by claimants.

In recent years it has made a profit but it is not allowed to reinvest that profit in the system and reduce costs. Lord Judge described this as an "irony" at the heart of the system.

At the same time, the amount of legal aid available to those who wish to take civil cases to court has, in the lord chief justice's words, been "reduced almost to non-existence" as the bill for criminal cases has risen.

Last resort

Bridget Prentice, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, said the government agreed that universal access to justice was key.

"It is important that people have the opportunity to go to court to resolve a dispute if it goes that far - of course that's right in a civilised society", she said.

She added that "most people would say to you they would prefer to have their disputes settled without having to get to court in the first place".

The government is keen to expand the use of alternatives such as mediation, especially in family cases.

The minister also pointed out that some claimants who cannot afford court costs can apply to get the fees remitted.

She did acknowledge, though, that there is a problem with the legal aid system.

'Shift the balance'

"It's something that we've been very concerned about for some time, that criminal legal aid was just growing exponentially, which is why we've introduced means testing in the magistrates courts and we're introducing it in the crown courts.

"People who earn a lot of money shouldn't be subsidised by the taxpayer in those cases, so we can use that money instead in civil cases. We want to shift the balance to civil legal aid, so we're very much with the lord chief justice in that proposal".

In November 2008, the Master of the Rolls asked Lord Justice Jackson to carry out a fundamental review of the costs of civil litigation. He has been asked to make recommendations which will promote access to justice "at proportionate cost".

His final report is due before the end of the year.

Law in Action is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 27 October at 1600 GMT. Or listen via iPlayer or download the free podcast.

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