When Chris Grayling was appointed lord chancellor and justice secretary, much was made of the fact he was not a lawyer.
Although he is the first ‘lay person’ to hold this office since the Archbishop of York in 1558 (and the only one not to have ended up in the Tower, so far…), I do not think this is as relevant as some would have us believe. He is first and foremost a competent and experienced politician, who is clearly destined for future promotion. In many ways he is ideally suited to the role and it is in all of our members’ interests that we develop a good working relationship with him.
Since the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the office of lord chancellor has lost much of its legal function – no longer sitting on the judicial bench or presiding over the business of the House of Lords. It is a far more political role. I have no doubt that Mr Grayling will apply his political skills while at the Ministry of Justice, ensuring that the coalition’s policy is more accessible and better understood by the tabloids and the public at large, contrasting with the sometimes rarefied approach to legal affairs taken by one or two of his predecessors. I will meet him formally next month and there are three priorities I hope will shape our conversation.
- Stand up for the rule of law and human rights at home and abroad
- The role of lord chancellor is to be the guardian of the rule of law in the UK and promoter of it overseas. Such a role requires respect and support for human rights. I hope that Mr Grayling will replicate the deep respect his predecessor Ken Clarke and his current ministerial colleague Lord McNally have for the European Convention on Human Rights. While I recognise this is a difficult issue for some in his party, I shall be urging no changes to the Human Rights Act.
- Support business growth through the promotion of UK legal services overseasAs we seek to build a more prosperous economy it is vital that the country plays to its strengths. There are few areas where Britain is stronger than professional legal services; exports have grown every year for a decade and now stand at £3.6bn a year. The government has a strong record of working with the Law Society and law firms to promote the sector overseas and maintain the primacy of London as an international legal centre. The support of UK Trade & Investment on trade missions, including my visit later this month to Brazil and participation at events such as the IBA conference, is crucial. The lord chancellor has a vital role in demonstrating to overseas audiences political support at the very highest level, while also championing the sector within the Cabinet.
- Ensure that all citizens are able to access justice As a legal aid practitioner, I know the impact that the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act will have on solicitors and clients. However, we must look forward. I will discuss with Mr Grayling some of the ideas from you which came out of my ‘good ideas for hard times’ initiative. We must explore how to support the countrywide network of local firms, which play such an important role in ensuring that ordinary people can manage their legal affairs.
I will make it clear to the lord chancellor that before any further cuts to the legal aid budget are considered, he must take time to review alternative sources of costs savings and the impact of the current round of cuts. I will also make it clear that the Society and the profession stand ready to work constructively with the ministry to develop and promote new ways to access justice for those affected by the act.
I want to hear your views on the issues I should raise with the lord chancellor. Email me at email@example.com or contact me on LinkedIn. The meeting with Mr Grayling is not simply about policy. It is also an opportunity for me and the vice-president, Nick Fluck, to get to know Mr Grayling better so that we can work closely and constructively over the coming years, ensuring that his agenda and the work of his department are properly informed by the experience of Law Society members. Wish us luck!
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, Law Society president