Lord Neuberger: Lawyers must ensure access to justice is a reality, not a slogan
World Bar leaders unanimously agree new Edinburgh Declaration on rule of law principles
A shortage of funding for access to justice risks undermining public confidence in the rule of law, the president of the Supreme Court has warned.
Giving the closing keynote address to the Independent Council of Advocates and Barristers in Edinburgh, Lord Neuberger said that one of the 'great problems' about access to legal representation was the 'high cost of lawyers' coupled with a dwindling legal aid budget.
'We are all familiar with calls on the government not to shrink the legal aid budget further, indeed to increase it, and such calls have obvious, and some might say urgent, force,' he said.
'However, it is not just the government which has the responsibility of ensuring that ordinary citizens have genuine access to justice: it is also the legal profession, and the judiciary.'
While not criticising the earning potential of lawyers, Lord Neuberger continued: 'If we are to have a first-class legal profession, we need some of the most able young people to become practising lawyers, and it is naïve to expect many able young people to become barristers if the financial rewards are paltry.
'I have no doubt that the rewards of the job of being a well-paid and successful advocate, particularly when taken together with the constitutional responsibilities which that role carries, mean that… all members of the legal profession have to do all they can to ensure that access to justice is not just a slogan but a reality.'
Accepting that a significant number of lawyers do well financially from legal practice, the Supreme Court's president acknowledged there were many others, especially those practising criminal and family law, who can 'scarcely make ends meet'.
'In that sense, the legal world, as so often is a microcosm of the world in general,' he said. 'The richest few percent of the population can afford the cost of legal advice and representation, and the lawyers who advise and represent them do very well.
'But, at any rate in much of the UK, the great bulk of the population have to struggle to scrape the money together to get any legal advice and representation, and are increasingly finding that legal aid is not available to them,' he said.
However, Lord Neuberger added that recent economic pressures 'have their upside'. 'They force us to address access to justice and proportionality issues when, without the funding crisis, we might carry on regardless,' he said.
'The financial squeeze which is being applied to so many areas concerned with the rule of law in general, and access to justice in particular, does make us question many of our cosy assumptions and practices, which is no bad thing.'
A declaration to commit to the rule of law, the independence of the courts and profession, and support for publicly funded access to justice was backed by world Bar leaders at the conference in Edinburgh.
Meeting at the Scottish Parliament, 14 years after first speaking out jointly on the subject, Bar leaders agreed the need to re-affirm their commitment to the principles set out in the Edinburgh Declaration of 2002 due to the continuing threats facing access to justice across the globe.
The chairman of the Bar, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, said: 'In England and Wales recent years have seen substantial cuts to legal aid and to funding for the courts.
'These cuts, in particular the removal of legal aid for large areas of social welfare and family, has undermined our ability as a society to offer effective access to justice for the vulnerable and the poor.'
Doerries added that a collective commitment from the world's Bar leaders showed that lawyers were 'on the same page' when it comes to the legal profession's guiding principles.
'The task now is for us to return to our own jurisdictions and ensure the tenets of the Edinburgh Declaration underpin our work as Bar leaders and, hopefully, act as guidance for our successors,' she continued.
Barristers and advocates from England and Wales, Australia, Northern Ireland, New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Hong Kong attended the conference and supported the declaration.