Tuesday 23 June 2015

Speech by the Secretary of State for Justice ~ brief comment

Michael Gove - appointed after the general election as Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor - has delivered his first major policy speech - What does a one nation justice policy look like.  It is a speech with many fine-sounding, flowing phrases and he promises to defend the rule of law but there is no commitment whatsoever to reverse any of the policies (e.g. legal aid cuts) imposed by his two predecessors.  Instead, his department is pressing ahead with policies such as further cuts to solicitor remuneration in criminal work.

Gove said that he wishes to address the "dangerous inequality" of the two-tier civil justice system but he certainly does not wish to lose the lucrative international legal services market offered in the UK - worth £20 billion per year to the economy.  He sees investment in more information technology (IT) as key to improving matters for the more usual litigator and he wishes to see more streamlined legal procedures including online dispute resolution.  Gove also referred to having fewer formal hearings in some cases, use of online solutions to disputes, telephone and video hearings and simpler processes for probate and divorce.  Successful law firms are to be asked to do more to assist people to obtain access to justice.  "When it comes to investing in access to justice then it is clear to me that it is fairer to ask our most successful legal professionals to contribute a little more ..." 

In the criminal justice system, he says that the reports by Sir Bill Jeffrey’s report on criminal advocacy and Sir Brian Leveson on Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings will be implemented.  Gove is right to complain here of matters such as late arrival of detainees (who are delivered to court by security firms), broken video links, late service of paper bundles, too many hearings in some cases and uncertain arrangements for attendance of witnesses.  All of these things are well known to court users but efficiency has improved only marginally in recent years.

It is clear that Gove has to work against a huge financial constraint imposed by the Treasury and there are bound to be further reductions in the court estate and, no doubt, staff reductions.

Regarding court estate, Gove noted: " It is still the case that many of our courts stand idle for days and weeks on end. Last year over a third of courts and tribunals sat for less than 50% of their available hours (10am – 4pm). At a time when every government department has to find savings it makes more sense to deliver a more efficient court estate than, for example, make further big changes to the legal aid system."

Legal aid matters will be kept under review but there will be no return to the more comprehensive civil legal aid system which existed prior to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act reforms.  (The longer term impact will be poor prospects for younger lawyers and, ultimately, a weakening of the judiciary).  The Ministry of Justice is also pressing forwards with further reforms in the criminal justice area as outlined in a written statement to the House of Commons by justice minister Shailesh Vara MP.

Gove plans to make further speeches on prisons, youth justice, diverting individuals from a life of crime and he wants "to make clear how we can better protect our rights, not least to freedom of speech and to freedom of association."  He is clearly keeping most his powder dry on the subject of human rights reform though his reference to the freedoms of speech and association is interesting.

Meanwhile reports such as this one on Pentonville Prison (HM Inspectorate of Prisons) must be mounting up on Gove's desk.  Action this day - as a former Prime Minister used to say!

For another blogger's view see The Steve Cornforth Blog

Earlier thoughts on civil justice reform can be read at Justice - Delivering justice in an age of austerity - where a new model for dispute resolution was proposed.

: Further links to be added below as they become available : 

Law Society Gazette 23rd June - Can wealthy lawyers really plug the justice gap?

Martin Partington Blog 23rd June - Revolution in the Justice System

The Justice Gap - Robin Murray 24th June - One Nation is not built on injustice, Mr Gove.  

Legal Cheek - Smooth-talking Gove charms lawyers over legal aid reform and rule of law 

Marilyn Stowe blog 25th June - Gove ignites pro bono debate - "If Mr Gove wants to get the legal profession ‘on side’ then, clearly, he is going to have to try a little harder. He is also going to have to try a little harder to resolve the terrible access to justice problems created by the legal aid cuts that were implemented by the last government, of which he was a prominent member."

1 comment:

  1. Any hopes that our new Lord Chancellor would be more sympathetic than he was to teachers have been dashed. In fact I don't recall him ever asking teachers to solve education issues by working for nothing...