Under the coalition government, the Ministry of Justice has been marked by a phenomenally loose grasp of detail at the top. When it comes to the business of running a legal practice, this, more than the left-right positioning of ministers, has been a problem. In areas such as the implementation of the Jackson reforms, that has exasperated supporters of the ministry’s policies as much as its opponents.
In the top three ministers – Clarke, McNally and Djanogly – the MoJ has had what might politely be termed broad-brush people in a rush. That their time in office has coincided with a monumental pocket-money shortage has compounded the problem.
So for insurer-lobby lawyers, supportive of Jackson’s proposed reforms, the MoJ is proving a flakey agent of change – among other errors, set to muddle an increase of the small-claims track limit with extension of the RTA claims portal. On legal aid, all proposals for ways of cutting that would have mitigated the impact on access to justice were placed in the ‘too-difficult’ box.
The increased costs arising from a dramatic increase in litigants-in-person were never calculated. And while pro bono advice might take up some of the slack, ministers have not looked at what might help that happen. Legal advice centres and citizens advice bureaux continue, but with diminished resources and swamped with demand for their services. And cuts to numbers in the government legal service, department by department, led off with the sort of voluntary redundancy programme that provides an active financial incentive for the most able and experienced professionals to walk.
Meanwhile changes to employment law and red-faced outrage at the European Court of Human Rights have tilted at windmills the size of crazy-golf course replicas.
Incredibly, such is the devil-may-care slackness in justice policy that sensible lawyers with no political axe to grind mutter in private about ‘malfeasance in public office’ (maximum sentence for willfully wasting public funds, a 25-year stretch) and breaches of the civil service code.
So for everyone in the legal sector – be they insurer lawyers, legal centre volunteers, City litigators, public law specialists, law students, general counsel, government lawyers, company law specialists, private practice advisers to central and local government – the interest in whether the MoJ tacks right or left politically should be a secondary consideration.
To serve their clients’ interests, and build their own viable businesses, practices and departments, the legal community mostly needs ministers who have a grip on their own policies. In the last two years, they’ve not had that.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor
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