Supreme Court cuts may compromise Judicial Independence (updated)

Cuts in the Supreme Court budget compromise the independence of Britain’s most senior judges, according to the court’s deputy president, Lord Hope. Delivering the Gray’s Inn Reading at Gresham College last Thursday, he suggested that depriving the judiciary of the resources they needed to do their job properly could even jeopardise the rule of law.

The judges cannot expect to be immune from the need for cost-saving in the public interest and to use their resources efficiently.  But the bottom line – the level below which they cannot be expected to go – must be for them to determine, not for officials employed by the Executive.

Although Lord Hope did not want to turn the clock back, he said it might have been “wiser” to have kept the law lords where they were and simply withdrawn their right to take part in parliamentary debates. Unlike the new Supreme Court, that would have cost nothing.

The sad fact is that we have been moved from the unshakeable protection of Parliament to a system which exposes us to demands for savings against which ministers may not wish to protect us, and would be unlikely to be able to do so if they did.

Lord Hope said that budget cuts would make it impossible for the Supreme Court judges to make proper use of its improved facilities.

We were instructed by the last government to cut our annual budget by £1m.  This was an astonishing demand to make of an institution which was still finding its feet in response to a move that the last government itself had imposed on it.  It was even more alarming when account was taken of the fact that a major part of the court’s annual budget consists of fixed costs – rent, rates and the salaries and pension contributions of the Justices.  Now we face the prospect of demands for even more cuts, the scale of which we will not know until the government’s Spending Review in October.  Some savings are possible, of course.  But a cut of the magnitude that we are facing cannot be achieved without serious prejudice to the quality of the service that the Supreme Court provides to the public.

It takes a lot to annoy a mild-mannered man like Lord Hope. He even hinted at legal action against the government. That might not be very practicable. But ministers take on the judges at their peril.

Update: This story was picked up by the Financial Times two days later, with the wrong date. 

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