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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 February 2006, 22:36 GMT
Ex-chief justice's legal aid fear
Lord Woolf
Lord Woolf is soon to sit as an appeal judge in Hong Kong
It is a "myth" to think the civil courts can be self-financing, the UK's former top judge has said as he criticised cuts to legal aid.

Lord Woolf, who retired as lord chief justice last year, said he shared worries that the "extraordinarily good" legal aid system had disappeared.

He told an audience in London the legal system needed to be cheaper, while maintaining a "Rolls-Royce" service.

The legal aid budget for civil cases has fallen 13% over eight years.

'Taking the slack'

Fears about the changes were raised in a questions session after Lord Woolf had given a speech at the London School of Economics.

Michael Smyth, head of public policy at City law firm Clifford Chance, said he was worried people did not have access to justice because of difficulties in finding a publicly-funded lawyer.

The problems had sparked a rise in large law firms doing work for free on a "pro bono" basis, he said.

Mr Smyth said there was a clear connection between legal aid franchises in London's East End closing and the "increasing need imposed on rich, well-resourced, successful law firms to take up the slack".

Lord Woolf said the "myth" the civil justice system could be self-financing had led to decisions out of line with British traditions.

"One could only hope that times would change and we could seek to regain some of the ground we have lost," he said.

"Having said that, we have to acknowledge and recognise that unfortunately our legal system is very expensive."

'Deserts'

The former law lord said other countries provided legal services in a simpler way, at lower cost.

"The government has been driven to take steps which I am uncomfortable about because the legal aid budget was undoubtedly out of control," he said.

"We must find ways of doing things which are cheaper while ensuring our Rolls Royce system is there in those cases - only those cases - where it is required."

The legal aid minister, Bridget Prentice, last year admitted parts of the country were "legal aid deserts" where it was hard to find a publicly-funded solicitor.

She told the BBC that too much of the legal aid budget was being swallowed up by criminal legal aid.

'Elected dictatorship'

Lord Woolf stepped down as lord chief justice last September and will soon be spending a month sitting as an appeal court judge in Hong Kong.

He used his speech to repeat his view that judges sometimes had to prevent "parliamentary democracy descending into what some would describe as an elected dictatorship".

Governments and Parliament had to accept they were subject to the rule of law, he said.

Tony Blair spoke last year about changing the "rules of the game" as his government drew up plans for new anti-terrorism laws.

Lord Woolf said judges should not be deterred from taking positive action where necessary against government plans.

But they should also show restraint and not "bring themselves into conflict unnecessarily with other arms of government" unless they had to in the court case before them, he argued.

Lord Woolf underlined how he had said plans to deny people a right to appeal to the courts in immigration cases was an "overt challenge to the rule of law".

The plan did not appear in the final version of the new immigration laws.




SEE ALSO:
Legal aid overhaul plan unveiled
17 May 05 |  UK Politics


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