Attacks on judges undermine law – Supreme Court president

The president of the UK’s Supreme Court has criticised politicians for not doing enough to defend judges following a row over the Brexit legal challenge.

Lord Neuberger said politicians did not speak out quickly or clearly enough and some media attacks had been unfair.

He said unjustified attacks on the judiciary undermined the rule of law.

After the government lost the Article 50 case at the High Court, a Daily Mail headline called the three judges in the case “enemies of the people”.

Lord Chancellor and justice minister Liz Truss said she was “delighted” that Lord Neuberger was “proactively talking about the role of the judiciary in public.”

She added: “It is right that everyone understands the importance of its independence and the rule of law in a free society.”

Lord Neuberger, who retires in September, was speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme a month after the Supreme Court ruled that only Parliament, not ministers, had the power to trigger the UK’s exit from the EU because that was where laws were made.

The Daily Mail’s front page story was published when the government lost the first stage of the legal battle at the High Court last November.

That story sparked a furious row with critics, including MPs from all parties, accusing Liz Truss, the lord chancellor and justice secretary, of not standing up for an independent judiciary.

The Supreme Court, the final court of appeal in the UK for civil cases – and for criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland – hears cases of the greatest public or constitutional importance affecting the whole population.

Its justices also sit as the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and as such will occasionally hear appeals against the death penalty from Commonwealth countries.

In an average year, the Supreme Court hears about 90 appeals and makes about 80 judgements on important issues of law.

In his interview, Lord Neuberger did not single out any newspaper or politician, but said: “We [judges in general] were certainly not well treated. One has to be careful about being critical of the press particularly as a lawyer or judge because our view of life is very different from that of the media.

“I think some of what was said was undermining the rule of law.”

Asked whether politicians had responded quickly enough to defend the judiciary and rule of law, Lord Neuberger said: “They were certainly vocal enough quickly enough after our hearing [in the Supreme Court].

“After the [High] Court hearing. I think they could have been quicker and clearer. But we all learn by experience, whether politicians or judges. It’s easy to be critical after the event. They were faced with an unexpected situation from which like all sensible people they learned.”

Lord Neuberger said that undermining the judiciary also undermined the rule of law as judges were “the ultimate guardians” of it.

“The rule of law together with democracy is one of the two pillars on which our society is based,” he added.

“And therefore if, without good reason, the media or anyone else undermines the judiciary that risks undermining our society.

“The press and the media generally have a positive duty to keep an eye on things. But I think with that power comes the degree of responsibility.”