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Lady Hale attacks government ‘austerity’ policies

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Supreme Court president in unusual political intervention

Lady Hale

One of the country’s most senior judges, Lady Hale, has laid into the government’s “austerity” spending cuts. In a speech delivered on the Isle of Man on 5 December and published on the court’s website today, the president of the Supreme Court said:

“While some families are fighting for legal recognition of their relationships, we should not forget that other families are fighting for enough to live on and to make ends meet. The UK government’s austerity policies have undoubtedly made this worse and have posed some uncomfortable problems for the courts.”

Senior judges generally steer clear of political subjects in their speeches and writing outside court, for fear of being seen as politically biased. But Hale sought to make clear that her statement was one of fact rather than opinion. She continued:

“The problem that we have in the courts is that it is quite obvious — indeed it is officially conceded — that many of the recent changes to the benefits system impact more harshly on women, children and disabled people than they do on other groups: for example, the recent report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Is Britain Fairer?, states that ‘UK wide reforms to social security and taxes since 2010 are having a disproportionate impact on the poorest in society and particularly affecting women, disabled people, ethnic minorities and lone parents’.”

This is not the first time that the justices have courted controversy. In 2015, the Supreme Court rushed to clarify remarks made by Lord Sumption about fast-tracking more women into the judiciary. Less senior judges — notably the recently retired head of family justice, Sir James Munby — have also made eye-catching speeches in the past.

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However, those potentially political interventions were generally concerned with the legal system in some way. Government cuts to social welfare are not obviously a legal matter, although cases challenging their impact on vulnerable families have come before the Supreme Court. Hale mentioned one pending case about “the revised benefit cap, which is even harsher than the original”.

The Supreme Court’s own guide to judicial conduct does not rule out talking politics. It says that “the justices recognise that it is important for members of the court to deliver lectures and speeches… to enhance professional and public understanding of the issues and of the role of the court”. It goes on to say that “in making such contributions, the justices will take care to avoid associating themselves with a particular organisation, group or cause in such a way as to give rise to a perception of partiality towards that organisation (including a set of chambers or firm of solicitors), group or cause”.

Hale speech was mostly about the court’s recent human rights cases. The Supreme Court president, who is expected to retire at the end of the year, also revealed that she recently “had to remind a sceptical taxi driver” about the value of the Human Rights Act.

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