Our first glimpse of the new lord chancellor was encouraging, but there are limits to the potential of pro bono.
It wasn’t exactly a charm offensive, but it was far from combative. Michael Gove may have wound up enough teachers to trigger his removal as education secretary, but he was not likely to repeat that mistake here.
Indeed, he even allowed himself a wry smile as he was asked whether he feared the legal ‘blob’ – the term apparently attached to members of the teaching profession opposing his radical reforms of the sector.
Gove appeared to have learned his lesson in his early exchanges during a maiden speech delivered in London today.
The lord chancellor praised the ‘scrupulous patience, intellectual diligence and culture of excellence’ of solicitors and barristers. He also reported that he had met with nothing but ‘goodwill, generosity and support’ from lawyers since he took up the post last month.
There was also a noticeably more forthcoming approach to the legal profession than his predecessor ever managed. He accepted the cuts to civil legal aid were ‘controversial’ and acknowledged critics’ concerns that the government had done ‘serious harm’ to access to justice. In what could be seen as an admonition of Chris Grayling, he said opposition to legal aid cuts had been ‘unfairly characterised’ as motivated by self-interest.
Indeed, just seeing a justice secretary in the flesh was a rare thing – most reporters could not remember Grayling ever inviting them to a press conference.
But it was the detail that will be of most interest to solicitors, rather than welcome but meaningless platitudes.
Court closures were always likely, and it appears we can expect another round to be announced in the coming months. It will be interesting to see how rural MPs in Gove’s party respond to potentially longer journeys for their constituents.
Other elements of his plan were like pushing at an open door. There can be few who oppose better efficiency and quicker resolution of disputes, so long as they do not compromise the application of justice.
Lawyers will surely also welcome pledges to review reforms of civil and criminal legal aid, though many will no doubt be dubious about whether it will lead to any restoration of public funding.
But it will be in Gove’s new-found reliance on the richest solicitors and barristers to plug the justice gap that will cause consternation. Gove was clear that those who have done well financially from the legal profession - and he must mean high-flying City lawyers - could and should do more to contribute to the profession.
Will that mean lawyers used to tying up multi-million-pound acquisitions advising on immigration law? Will solicitors take an afternoon off bonds law to help a family fighting to keep a roof over their heads?
These aims are surely unrealistic. I sense neither the will nor - most importantly - the experience in the City to pick up the slack.
Relying on pro bono work to fill the justice gap is a recipe for trouble. If Gove wants to avoid recreating the 'blob' he will be well advised not to do so.
John Hyde is Gazette deputy news editor