The country’s ‘serious problem’ with access to justice will cause fragmentation, the President of the Supreme Court warned in a stinging attack on legal aid policy over the last 30 years.

Lord Neuberger, who retires in the autumn, told the Australian Bar Association’s biennial conference in July that it was ‘fundamentally wrong’ if ordinary citizens and businesses cannot obtain competent legal advice.

He said: ‘Access to justice is a practical, not a hypothetical, requirement. And if it does not exist, society will eventually start to fragment.

‘It is a fragmentation which arises when people lose faith in the legal system: they then lose faith in the rule of law, and that really does undermine society.’

Criticising successive governments, he said: ‘It verges on the hypocritical for governments to bestow rights on citizens while doing very little to ensure that those rights are enforceable.

‘It has faint echoes of the familiar and depressing sight of repressive totalitarian regimes producing wonderful constitutions and then ignoring them.’

Things, he said, had taken a ‘wrong turning’ with the Access to Justice Act 1999 and he doubted the clock could be turned back.

Commenting, Bar Chair Andrew Langdon QC said: ‘There needs to be a complete rethink on the availability and sufficiency of legal aid to prevent a dislocation of the law from the very many who cannot afford its protection.’