Senior judge says 'torrent of legislation' made legal system incomprehensible

A new government should call a halt to the "torrent" of legislation that has made the legal system incomprehensible to judges and the public alike, a senior judge has said.

Judge Charles Harris, QC, president of the 600-strong Council of Circuit Judges, told The Times that the criminal law had become so complex that judges had to have it explained to them by academic experts.

As for the civil law, that was so complicated that some laws were "completely beyond the grasp of people to whom they apply".

"Law which is not readily comprehensive is unfair law, because those to whom it applies have to spend time, money and anxiety in finding out by litigation what their obligations are."

The judge, who heads the judicial rank handling all serious cases in the Crown and county courts, said that the last three prime ministers had produced an average of 2,629 laws a year.

In the past eight years there had been more than 3,000 statutory instruments a year and between 40 and 70 Acts of Parliament, he added.

"Some substantive civil law is so complex that it is wholly inaccessible to the laymen to whom it applies and not much easier to understand for lawyers."

One example were the consumer credit laws, he said. "Academics graze contented in its thickets, while the people to whom the law applies have no choice but to sign contracts which they do not understand."

As for the criminal laws, the editor of Archbold, the criminal law compendium, had described its state as a "disgrace".

Judge Harris, 65, said that it was time for a bill to consolidate and rationalise the criminal laws; for a pruning out of all statues and for a halt to all legislation.

"It is vital to remember that laws should not be run up in haste and flung, as a palliative reaction, at every problem which may arise."

His comments come as another judge issued a warning that the public are "best off having nothing to do" with litigation.

Pointing to all the lawyers' bills and complexity involved in modern court cases, Lord Justice Mummery, a Court of Appeal judge, said: "I am sympathetic to all litigants who get caught up in our legal system."

And the judge, the nation's foremost expert on employment law, added: "The law is best kept as far away as possible; you're best off having nothing to do with it".

The judge made his comments when rejecting an appeal by a Devon lord of the manor against a bill for almost £15,000 his company was hit with after an Employment Tribunal hearing.

David Piper, 60, who is Lord of the Manor of Warleigh, argued that the compensation award after a disability discrimination claim was "a travesty of justice".

However, after telling him of the legal minefield and bills he faced if his appeal went ahead, Lord Justice Mummery, a former President of the Employment Appeal Tribunal, said that Mr Piper’s challenge to the payout had "no reasonable prospect of success".

Mr Piper's company, Brentegani's Bistro Ltd, was taken before the Employment Tribunal after Jacqueline Marley, who worked at the Plymouth restaurant, had her employment "terminated" in December 2007.

She complained that no "reasonable adjustments" had been made to her working conditions to take account of her disabling back condition and Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, and the Tribunal awarded her £14,777 in compensation.

Mr Piper, a retired hotelier, tried to challenge that ruling at the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), claiming that it was made on an incorrect legal and factual basis, but was prevented from pursuing his case because he filed papers three days outside a six-week deadline.

Whilst expressing sympathy for Mr Piper's medical condition, the judge said that the six-week time limit laid down by the EAT was "generous" and told him: "I am afraid this appeal does not have a real prospect of success".

(Published by Times Online - 29/04/2010)

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