Justice secretary Michael Gove has said he is ‘disappointed’ by the criminal bar’s vote to take action over legal aid – but stressed he is still willing to talk to practitioners.
Gove appeared keen to praise lawyers during today’s appearance at the justice committee of the House of Commons, stressing that he did not believe their opposition to legal aid reforms was motivated by self-interest but by ‘genuine concern’ for access to justice.
But there appears little prospect of any renegotiation over fees, with the lord chancellor admitting he is still bound by budgetary restrictions on his unprotected department and the requirement to bring down spending.
In a wide-ranging session which stretched to more than 75 minutes, Gove also said:
- He would review of the Legal Services Act within this parliament;
- Proof of miscarriages of justice rather than a fall in the number of claims would be required to prompt cuts in employment tribunal fees;
- Court fees for the civil and criminal courts will remain in place but will be kept under review;
- Court closures would continue across England and Wales while ensuring that all remaining facilities will be within an hour’s travel.
Gove is the first secretary of state in the new government to appear before a select committee in this parliament. He arrived just 15 minutes after the Criminal Bar Association announced that its members had voted to support a ‘no returns’ policy in protest against legal aid cuts.
The former education secretary said that the majority had been lower than widely predicted and he said a strike was ‘not necessary at this time’.
He added: ‘We want to work constructively with the bar to continue to have a healthy and independent bar. Notwithstanding the vote, I can continue to work with the CBA and Bar Council to address concerns which are perfectly legitimate.’
Pressed by committee member Alex Chalk (Conservative) on contingency plans for when lawyers refuse to take work, Gove said they are in place but he was hopeful they would not be needed.
‘Even if there has been a vote I still think it’s possible for the department to continue to talk to representatives of the profession about meeting their concerns.
‘Of course we have a Public Defender Service where our skilled advocates retained at public expense to ensure the administration of justice goes ahead effectively.’
Members asked the new justice secretary about several developments created by his predecessor Chris Grayling, including employment tribunal fees, civil and criminal court fees and reforms of civil legal aid.
Gove said the government is committed to reviewing the impact of tribunal fees, but a significant reduction in the number of claims would not necessarily follow that meritorious cases are being denied.
‘A simple reduction in people applying to employment tribunals is not in itself proof of an impact on justice,’ he said.
On civil court fees, which rose by up to 600% earlier this year for claims above £10,000, Gove was wary of pledging any reduction during his time in office – and even suggested he could be persuaded to increase them.
‘As ever, if you’re going to increase the price of any good, whether it’s access to justice or anything else, you can’t know [the impact] until you see how people behave,’ he said. ‘If we find there are cases of rough justice we will revisit. If the market can bear in the future any revision upwards we will be happy to do that.’
On the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which heralded cuts to civil legal aid, Gove reiterated the MoJ’s commitment to a review and said reforms will be made if any aspect is not working properly.
Gove revealed that he will review the Legal Services Act, which produced the current legal services regulatory system, saying there is a ‘danger of regulators falling over each other’s feet’.
He also confirmed that a consultation on a British bill of rights, to replace the Human Rights Act, will be published in the autumn.
A departure from the European Convention on Human Rights was ‘not 100% guaranteed’ during his time in post, he said, saying he ‘hoped’ to remain in the convention.