Justice minister Dominic Raab said it himself: this was not the conference for those in search of Michael Howard-style ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ rhetoric. He would have been pleased to see only one delegate walk out of his fringe event at this point.
Instead, last week’s Conservative party conference was about tiny steps towards repairing a fractured relationship with the legal profession.
There was no restoration of legal aid, no reversal of court closures, no scrapping of fees and little certainty about how Brexit would affect the UK’s leading position as an international dispute resolution centre.
But while no one will remember a revolution happening in Manchester in October 2017, perhaps the event may one day be recalled as a moment when the tide turned.
The main concession appeared to be that legal aid reforms introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) may need re-examining. Solicitor general Robert Buckland admitted there are ‘examples in the system where there are unfairnesses that need to be plugged’, adding that ‘in terms of provision there is a case for sensible investment in early advice’.
Buckland was speaking at an event promoted by pro bono service LawWorks – and the very attendance of ministers at such events was significant in itself.
John Howell, a Conservative member of the justice committee, declared himself open to a more flexible approach to legal aid provision and said new policy (for example on exceptional case funding) had been ‘too draconian’.
Privately, justice secretary David Lidington is also sympathetic to modest reforms of LASPO. He even mentioned taking another look at the issue of court fees, though his justice colleague Raab played down any prospect of a significant reduction.
Lidington made no mention of legal aid, court modernisation or even lawyers in his setpiece speech to conference, preferring instead to focus almost entirely on prison reform. But he insists he has listened to those at the coalface and understands the challenges facing practitioners. It is just possible the long-awaited LASPO review could offer one or two glimpses of hope for legal aid lawyers.
Overall, the tone has noticeably changed. Belt-tightening is still a priority, but there were few mentions of austerity and far more of making positive changes to the justice system (albeit without committing any more money).
What brought on this change? The conference attempted to steer talk away from what the government was denying people and more on what it could achieve. In many ways, justice policy was the epitome of the new tone.
While the general message altered, a shift in justice policy has to some extent been forced on justice ministers.
Raab reiterated that they had got it wrong on employment tribunal fees, although he could do little else after the hammering the government took in the summer from the Supreme Court.
Bob Neill, chair of the justice committee, was quoted as saying the government’s increases in tribunal fees ‘went beyond what was necessary’. The justice message reflected a little humility that was only natural following the Supreme Court mauling.
The other major driver, brought up at numerous fringe events, was Labour – and specifically last month’s Bach Commission report.
It is open to debate how radical the Bach recommendations are – creating a ‘right to justice’ was nothing more than a philosophical aspiration, according to Buckland – but the report and its timing ambushed this conference.
Conservative justice policy is now arguably being driven by the opposition. Buckland conceded that he shared plenty of ‘middle ground’ with Bach; and Tory MPs with an interest in justice policy seemed far more interested in talking about the commission than their own party’s policy.
While this went down well with left-leaning lawyers in Manchester last week, it threatens to alienate core voters who do not want Labour to set the agenda.
One delegate, an in-house local authority solicitor, implored Raab to find a middle ground over employment tribunal fees which did not leave employers ‘open to blackmail and having to buy off claims for £1,000 a time’. The justice minister had little to placate him.
While the early morning start (11am counts as early morning for delegates ‘networking’ until the small hours) was always going to diminish numbers for Lidington’s speech, those that did show up were hardly in raptures with talk of rehabilitation and finding jobs for offenders. The BBC’s Daniel Sandford was probably being kind when he described Lidington’s contribution as ‘steady as she goes’.
What substance there was seemed to place him at odds with many Tory members, who believe the role of the justice secretary is to lock up criminals. This contrasted with at least one Tory MP, who seemed enraptured by the new lord chancellor.
‘Isn’t he wonderful? This is someone who really gets it,’ they ventured. ‘It feels this year like Labour doesn’t have the monopoly on being nice.’
After a year in which the judiciary came in for sulphurous assault from some sections of the media, there were also stirring words from Tory MPs.
Buckland said the Mail’s attack on High Court judges over their Brexit judgment required a ‘prompt and robust’ response. Alex Cheek, another member of the justice committed, added that it was not for judges to comment on individual cases, but instead it required ‘politicians to ensure we go into bat to defend judges who would be dragged into an arena they don’t want to be’. I did not come across one Conservative MP who was sorry to see Liz Truss’s short spell at justice come to a rapid end.
Just as we cannot assume Labour would solve every problem in the justice system, it would be equally wrong to suggest the Conservatives have caused them all.
Equally, it would be folly to assume that a few emollient words from a handful of MPs imply that lawyers stand to get everything they want.
Courts will still close, online justice may ease lawyers out, fees will still be charged. Legal aid will not come flooding back.
But the discussion is at least changing – and figures in the party with an interest in justice are prepared to voice their concerns. That is worth noting.