What does a one nation justice policy look like?
Michael Gove’s first big speech as Justice Secretary was an intriguing one, very different in tone and content from any pronouncements made not just by his immediate predecessor, Chris Grayling, but by the one before, Ken Clarke.
Staking his claim to the moral high ground, Gove’s opening statement was:
[alert-success]”The most important thing I need to defend in this job – at all costs – is not a specific political position – but the rule of law.”[/alert-success]
His speech was organised under four categories which could easily have been the headlines for a Labour Justice Secretary:
- The rule of law
- A dangerous inequality at the heart of our system
- Reforming civil justice
I’ve tried to pick out points of interest from each of the four sections.
The rule of law
After a tour through the historical highlights of British jurisprudence – Magna Carta, habeas corpus, the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage – and praising the quality of British lawyers which, apparently, means as a nation we earn over £20 billion a year from the provision of legal services, Gove comes to a rather surprising conclusion:
[alert-success]”But even as we can – collectively – take pride in the fact that our traditions of liberty are generating future prosperity we must also acknowledge that there is a need to do much more. Despite our deserved global reputation for legal services, not every element of our justice system is world-beating. While those with money can secure the finest legal provision in the world, the reality in our courts for many of our citizens is that the justice system is failing them.
A dangerous inequality at the heart of our system
Gove argues that although “the wealthy, international class” can settle cases in London with the gold standard of British justice, everyone else has to put up with a creaking, outdated system. He claims that if Dickens were to attend a Crown Court today, he would instantly recognise the Victorian justice system he satirised in Great Expectations.
The Justice Secretary said there were more than 33,000 ineffective trials (17%) last year and a further 37% were “cracked” – meaning that the case concluded unexpectedly without a court hearing. In other words, less than half of all court cases are administered effectively.
Reforming civil justice
In turning to the system of civil justice, Gove concentrated more straightforwardly on making the system much more effective by adopting a plain English campaign and making a great majority of processes available online or via telephone and video hearings. He also noted that last year a third of courts and tribunals sat for less than 50% of their available hours, which is pretty shocking given that those hours are 10 AM – 4 PM.
Lawyers may be heartened to read his conclusion from this section (or may feel that there is nothing more than could be cut from the Legal Aid budget):
[alert-success]”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.”[/alert-success]
Social justice at the heart of our justice system
In his final section, Mr Gove returns to the subject of Legal Aid, defending the cuts (in a slightly luke-warm style) as a necessity to reduce the budget deficit but promising to monitor the impact of the changes “both on the quality of advocacy and access to justice.”
He hints at a need for corporate lawyers to contribute more to the overall legal system than an occasional pro bono case, but whether this goes as far as the levy that some have speculated on is far from clear.
Mr Gove does, however, make it very clear, that he intends to make big changes to the legal system.
Mr Gove’s tone and content were so striking that the Guardian was moved to write an editorial sub-titled: “hope at last for penal reform?”
The speech was certainly an intriguing beginning and more speeches are promised to set out the new Justice Secretary’s plans for:
- What we need to do to make sure our prisons work much better,
- To explain what needs to change in our youth justice system,
- To explore how we can prevent individuals falling into crime and how we can rescue them from a life of crime, and
- To make clear how we can better protect our rights, not least to freedom of speech and to freedom of association.
It will be interesting to read the content of these speeches and even more so to see what actions follow.