Jeremy Beecham on the multiple threats to the international reputation of the British legal system
It is a matter of deep regret that the international reputation of our legal system is under threat –
both from Government policies and a growing indifference, even hostility, to some of the cardinal principles which lie at its heart.
As we are frequently reminded, next year is the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, the document which has acquired an iconic resonance as a charter of liberties. In his book, The Pursuit of Justice Lord Woolf described Magna Carta as: “as a symbol for the values of the common law, remarkable because it is such a historical statement of the fundamental principles of the rule of law”, and which was adopted by other later jurisdictions, including the US and India.
But the common law, powerful and flexible as it has been, and instrumental – alongside the independence, wisdom and integrity of our judiciary – in earning the admiration of others does not stand alone. Nor is it immune from threats which seem to be growing in number and intensity.
We have debated many times the vexed question of access to justice, particularly in the light of the steady undermining of judicial review; and the erosion of the availability of legal aid and advice within the courts and tribunal system. Whole swathes of rights and remedies are now beyond the reach of many of our citizens. Unless of course, they have the means to pay for services, or the good fortune to obtain support from an increasingly overloaded and under-resourced voluntary sector. Later this month, we will debate yet another block on the road to justice – the residence test for legal aid, which the JCHR considers a flagrant violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
That Convention was very much the UK’s contribution to the construction, after the Second World War, of a democratic Europe in which the rule of law became a cornerstone of the civic and judicial structure. Yet a disturbing trend has emerged of late, which has seen human rights and the role of the Convention disparaged in the very country that did so much to advance them.
Rather than cherish these rights, the Coalition government sees in our judicial system a commodity to be traded. While access to justice for hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens is made hugely more difficult, foreign litigants are being encouraged to use our skilled lawyers and our courts to resolve their differences. Justice becomes little more than a contributor to the UK balance of payments.
Chaos in the recently re-organised and fragmented probation service, and our overcrowded prisons, are little short of scandalous. The situation in our civil courts is also very worrying, with a growing concern over the number of litigants in person causing delay and costs. A system we have been so justly proud, which others have sought to emulate, is under threat as never before – from an obtuse Ministry which seems prepared only to pay lip service to the tradition of centuries and the adjustments required to reflect changing needs in our society.
Lord Jeremy Beecham is Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords
Published 10th July 2014