Members of the legal profession who were hoping Michael Gove’s time would be consumed trying to solve the Human Rights Act puzzle will be disappointed. In a speech to the Legatum Institute this morning, the Justice Secretary confirms he will be bring the same reformist zeal to Britain’s legal system as he did to education. Gove’s main concern, according to the extracts of the speech pre-released, is that our justice system at present is tipped too much in favour of the wealthy. Similarly to the rest of the government’s agenda, he wants a One Nation legal system:
‘There are two nations in our justice system at present. On the one hand, the wealthy, international class who can choose to settle cases in London with the gold standard of British justice. And then everyone else, who has to put up with a creaking, outdated system to see justice done in their own lives. The people who are let down most badly by our justice system are those who must take part in it through no fault or desire of their own: victims and witnesses of crime, and children who have been neglected.’
Gove will also describe the ‘waste and inefficiency’ within Britain’s legal system, decrying the ‘human cost’ such problems are creating:
‘It is the poorest in our society who are disproportionately the victims of crime, and who find themselves at the mercy of this creaking and dysfunctional system. Women who have the bravery to report domestic violence, assault and rape. Our neighbours who live in those parts of our cities scarred by drug abuse, gangs and people trafficking. These are the people who suffer twice – at the hands of criminals and as a result of our current criminal justice system.’
The legal profession tends to be sceptical of Justice Secretaries outside of their own ranks. But Gove is not acting off his own back with these calls for change, name-checking a report from Sir Brian Leveson — he of the media inquiry — who ‘makes the case compellingly’ for change:
‘The case for reform is overwhelming. Which should not surprise us, because it is made most powerfully and clearly by the judiciary themselves. The Lord Chief Justice and his colleagues who provide leadership to our justice system are all convinced of, and convincing on, the case for reform. They have commissioned work which makes the case for quite radical change.’
It’s fair to say that Chris Grayling, his predecessor, was not a popular Justice Secretary. His approach was often seen by lawyers as to ignore some of the fundamental problems within our legal system. In particular, lawyers argue that the cuts Grayling oversaw to legal aid were particularly damaging to fairness. Even the Prime Minister’s brother, Alexander Cameron QC, was involved in the row after a serious fraud trail collapsed following Cameron’s ruling that the defendants ‘could not receive a fair trial.’
There is no indication in Gove’s pre-briefed remarks whether he will tackle such concerns over the legal aid cuts. With the spending axe falling once again across Whitehall, it’s unlikely there will be a u-turn on these cuts. But there is definitely a change in tone here from the government and lawyers who have long campaigned for legal reforms will be pleased to see their issues being debated at the front of politics. If nothing else, as a former journalist, Gove knows how to capture headlines.