In his admirably lucid and revelatory account of the removal of Lord Irvine from the office of lord chancellor, and the destruction of the office itself, by his ungrateful pupil Tony Blair, Joshua Rozenberg has pinpointed a key moment in our recent legal history.
As he says, the lord chancellor ‘had evolved over the centuries into a uniquely valuable constitutional pivot’. By transferring his responsibilities to the political office of the justice secretary, the Blair government removed a vital bridge between the cabinet and judiciary. Now there is no one in the cabinet committed to the primacy of the rule of law. The result is a hastened devaluation and near collapse of a constitution that has taken centuries to build.
Of course there are practical advantages in a Ministry of Justice headed by a minister sitting in the House of Commons; but it is all too easy for such a minister – especially one without a legal background – to forget the pre-eminent constitutional status of the law, which sets it apart from nearly all other departmental functions, however important they may be in daily life.
There is nothing and no one to call a halt to changes whose cumulative impact is devastating. Suddenly we wake up to realise that our proud heritage has been destroyed. Could an effective spokesperson for the rule of law in cabinet – such as Lord Irvine – have prevented the draconian legal aid cuts, the mindless campaign against human rights, the drive to hand over the provision of legal services to haulage contractors and bookmakers, the wholesale denial of access to justice? Probably not.
But until we have a powerful voice speaking up fearlessly and effectively for the rule of law at the very top of government, the downward spiral can only continue.
Geoffrey Bindman, Bindmans, London WC1