At first sight, it may seem odd to make Michael Gove the new Justice Secretary. But he has had experience – all too much of it. His job will be to clean up the mess of the Human Rights Act. In the Department for Education he saw for himself how the rule of law was degenerating into something different: the rule by lawyers.
Any time civil servants don’t want to carry out a reform, they invoke the Human Rights Act – or the Equalities Act, a booby trap planted in the dying days of Gordon Brown’s government. The aim was to make it a lot easier to sue conservatives. Gove came up against the effect of this the whole time. Lawyers seemed to rule the roost. Sorry, Secretary of State, but it’s against European law for teachers to tell kids to turn out their pockets. Or to get rid of bad teachers. And go slow with school reform – you’ll end up slapped with a Judicial Review if you get dot or comma wrong. Or the enemies of free schools will pick up the phone to a lefty law firm like Leigh Day and hit you with vexatious legal complaints until you give up.
(When Labour’s Andrew Adonis was schools minister, he was hugely frustrated at the way Leigh Day was able to harass and sue his department, usually funding the action by finding a complainant who qualified for legal aid. Adonis ran a team of government lawyers, fighting another team of Leigh Day lawyers also paid by government funds).
Gove saw, first hand, how the imposition of the European Convention of Human Rights on to British law, via the Human Rights Act, created shedloads of unintended results. And how the mess was being exploited by lawyers, who made a killing from the chaos, and the enemies of reform more generally.
And also he’s unhappy with the way that UK law can make things so easy for jihadis. In his 2006 book, Celsius 7/7, he wrote:-
“The problems we face are compounded by the dogged refusal of too many in the legal establishment to put the defence of our civilisation ahead of the defence of the traditions with which their profession has grown comfortable.”
He concluded in that book that “changing our laws” is “vital”. We may soon come to see what he meant. Much work has been done by Chris Grayling, who has long pledged to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. The new Tory majority in the Commons can simply pass a vote stating that the UK Supreme Court is senior to Strasbourg.
So Gove’s move to Justice does make sense. The law really does need simplification, and he’s the man to build on what Chris Grayling has achieved.