We know how little our government thinks of legal services. Our current lord chancellor is the eighth occupant of the post since the Conservatives formed the government in 2010. Lord chancellors come and go, as if the Ministry of Justice is a junction for changing trains rather than a place for doing serious work on the administration of justice and the rule of law.
The present occupant was demoted into it after being on holiday during the fall of Kabul. Presumably he was moved from the Foreign Office for a rather serious dereliction of ministerial duty. But no dereliction of duty can disqualify you from a ministry where no one cares what you do.
At the same time, when ministers are rightly concerned that toxic slurs may lead to murder, following the assassination of Sir David Amess (without commenting on the motives for his terrible death), and are telling everyone to treat others with respect, no respect is due from them to lawyers.
The home secretary has a history of attacking ‘lefty’ and ‘activist’ lawyers. Last year, the Law Society wrote to the Home Office asking her to stop these attacks, particularly after a man with a large knife entered a London law firm and launched a ‘violent, racist attack’ that injured a staff member before he was overwhelmed. She continued.
The prime minister has attacked lawyers in his keynote speeches at successive Conservative party conferences. Last year, he claimed that the entire criminal justice system was ‘being hamstrung by lefty human rights lawyers’ and this year he took up the cudgels again by referring to lefty Islington lawyers who voted against tougher sentences for serious sexual and violent offenders.
There is a pattern to the government blaming a particular sector for failings which others pin on the government. So the shortage of lorry drivers is the road haulage industry’s fault for not investing in better facilities and offering higher salaries – rather than governmental decisions affecting the labour market.
Therefore it is only to be expected that, in the prime minister’s words, the entire criminal justice system is hamstrung by lawyers. The fact that there are long queues waiting for their day in our crumbling courts has nothing to do with repeated cuts to the MoJ budget.
The first duty of every lord chancellor should be to ensure that justice is being administered in the courts. There are legal aid deserts in our jurisdiction where citizens cannot find a lawyer or have to travel long distances to find one. The backlog in the criminal courts has risen to staggering levels (over 60,000 cases, with nearly a fifth waiting for over a year to go to court).
Yet we read in newspapers again in the last few days that the lord chancellor wants to revamp the Human Rights Act to stop the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) dictating to us. Nearly every time we read about the lord chancellor, that is what we hear – he is concerned about the impact of human rights legislation.
With our domestic courts system in a devastated state, he wants to concentrate on the fear that foreigners might be dictating to us. However, the statistics do not show this to be a grave problem: up until the end of 2018, there were 547 judgments concerning the UK at the ECtHR, and there will have been a handful more since then. Compare that to the domestic criminal cases statistics already mentioned, for which he is now responsible.
Money is found for other industries, for instance currently in the energy sector. The lord chancellor points to new super court rooms, the extension of the Nightingale Courts into 2022 and limit-free sitting days in Crown courts to restore access to justice. But that does nothing for the infrastructure of proper legal aid payments in civil and criminal cases, and the restoration of the court estate, devastated by the government’s austerity policy.
The messages for the government (indeed for the prime minister himself) from this sorry tale could not be clearer:
- Treat the MoJ as a serious department worthy of being led by a heavyweight cabinet minister who will be able to burnish their career through a relatively lengthy stay;
- Cease attacks on those administering the legal system – lawyers in our case, although the same could be said on behalf of the judges – so that you stay true to your words about how slurs can lead to violence and lesser forms of disrespect;
- Cease distractions, such as the fear of foreigners, and focus on the grave shortcomings in the ordinary and everyday justice system, like access to advice and the courts; and
- Put serious amounts of money, wrongly taken in the first place, back into the justice system so that one of the first duties of government, the administration of justice, can be fulfilled.
Jonathan Goldsmith is Law Society Council member for EU matters and a former secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe. All views expressed are personal and are not made in his capacity as a Law Society Council member, nor on behalf of the Law Society