JusticeWatch: Liz Truss sworn in as first female lord chancellor

Liz Truss became the first woman to be sworn into office as lord chancellor following a ceremony at the Royal Courts of Justice in London yesterday. ‘I am a great supporter of reform and modernisation throughout the courts and tribunals system, and that urgent task will be high on my agenda in the months ahead, as I know it is for senior members of the judiciary,’ she said.

As reported last week, the appointment of another non lawyer with little history in the area has prompted disbelief, not least from some in her own party.

‘Judges and the rest of the legal profession might have to get used to a Ministry of Justice that is home to only one lawyer-minister after Anna Soubry turned down the prime minister’s invitation to join the team,’ reported the Times in its Brief daily news bulletin yesterday.

Soubry, ‘a barrister-turned-TV presenter’ (as The Sun put it), told friends that the offer of a junior role at the MoJ was ‘an insult’.

Justice minister Lord Faulks stepped down over fears for the rule of law (but seemingly had no problem serving under Chris Grayling) and the Tory chair of the House of Commons justice committee Bob Neill echoed concerns. ‘It helps if the person in charge has been a lawyer or has been a senior member of the cabinet. I have a concern, with no disrespect to Liz, that it would be hard for someone without that history to step straight in and fulfil that role,’ he said. Neill was accused of ‘thinly veiled misogyny’ by ‘friends of Liz Truss’.

Truss is now the third, consecutive non lawyer into the job. ‘But only one of these legally inexperienced politicians has provoked furious protests in their first week of the job,’ wrote Isabel Hardman in the Spectator. ‘While both men attracted their fair share of criticism while they did the job, only the first female Lord Chancellor has walked into a blaze of fury before even having a chance to rearrange the pens on her new desk.’

‘The anxious voices criticising her are more than the sexist last gasps of some crusty, bewigged buffoons,’ reckoned Juliet Samuel in the Telegraph. Lawyers were anxious about the integrity of the justice system. ‘Why? Because of a bunch of botched reforms brought in by Chris Grayling, the first Lord Chancellor appointed for over 400 years who had never been a lawyer,’ she wrote.

Hardman reminded readers of Grayling’s intriguing argument that lack of a legal qualification actually made him the best lord chancellor in its distinguished history because it enabled him to take ‘a dispassionate view’.

According to Hardman, Truss had ‘a similarly bullish attitude to vested interests and opponents of reform’ – and if you don’t believe that, check out the transcripts of her stint on the bill committee for LASPO.

As James Sandbach, writing for LegalVoice, also pointed out she is no fan of legal aid.  He revisited her time on LASPO’s bill committee where Truss faithfully trotted out the well-worn (and discredited) government line about the comparative generosity of our scheme.

‘Is it not the case that in other countries with similar legal systems, such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia, there are much lower costs per head of legal aid, the scope is much narrower, and the eligibility for legal aid is much lower? My understanding is that at roughly £10,000 income you do not receive legal aid in those countries. Is the British system not pretty generous in terms of the eligibility for legal aid and the scope that is being proposed under this bill?’
Liz Truss

Steve Hynes of the Legal Action Group blogged that Sir Oliver Heald QC, a barrister who will replace Faulks, could be ‘interpreted as providing some heavyweight legal experience in the ministerial team at the MoJ.’ Heald, former Solicitor General and Shadow Justice Secretary, cut his teeth working at the Free Representation Unit. His experience at the sharp end would ‘hopefully be of use in persuading his new boss to look again at civil legal aid.’

By the way, at the Department for Education, her old boss Michael Gove called Truss his ‘hand grenade’.

Animal QC tamed?
We recently reported on the appointment of Gary Bell QC to chair the advisory council that Michael Gove pledged to establish when he scrapped the criminal legal aid contracting regime – and how he was ‘mates’ with our Lord Chancellor. (‘He’s a very amusing fellow, he’s extremely eccentric – he just is, he’s bonkers, but he’s very clever,’ Bell said.) Of course it remains to be seen whether Bell and Truss are going to quite so mates-y.

Bell wrote for Counsel magazine about he committee’s work. ‘This is our opportunity to inform the Lord Chancellor of what we, who work at the coalface of criminal justice, see as weaknesses within the legal aid system that need to be addressed,’ he wrote.

Note the ‘we’.

Animal QC isn’t a fan of all parts of the legal family. ‘If there are any solicitors that read this who employ high court advocates, they can fuck off anyway, because they’re destroying both professions,’ he told Catherine Baksi.

The Counsel article revealed a more diplomatic tone from the barrister who was recently blasted by Jonathan Black on Legal Voice. The solicitor advocate questioned how defence solicitors could have confidence in Gove’s new advisory council ‘when it is being chaired by his QC ‘mate’, who thinks firms employing higher rights advocates are “venal”’.

Teflon Tony
Earlier in the week in the first nine hours of a new crowdfunding campaign, families of British troops who died in Iraq raised over £50,000 – enough for lawyers to begin a legal action against Tony Blair and others. I Interviewed Reg Keys, whose son Tom was killed in Iraq on June 24th 2003.

There is no option for legal aid,’ Keys said. ‘The government won’t fund us, and the police and CPS won’t look at our case.’

The families are determined to hold those they blame to account in a proper court. Reg Keys famously stood against Tony Blair in the 2005 election in his Sedgefield constituency. The then prime minister refused to meet the families, as apparently he does to this day, and was forced to listen to a grieving father. His story was told in the Jimmy McGovern drama Reg broadcast on BBC 1 last month and starring Tim Roth.

‘It’s nauseating that the families of the bereaved are out there trying to fundraise to bring a man to court who is a multimillionaire. But that is what happens when you take on the establishment,’ he said.

Contract problems
Solicitors could be sanctioned for bringing the Legal Aid Agency into disrepute under terms for the new criminal legal aid contracts. The Law Society reckons the clause could cause problems. New Society president Robert Bourns said: ‘Given the economic constraints within the legal aid system, and radical changes to the court system requiring solicitors to be increasingly mobile and flexible in delivering advice and representation to those in need, it is disappointing that a number of our representations are not reflected in the contract terms.’

Great – in theory
Also in the Gazette, Rachel Rothwell blogged about the prospects of a CLAF – or contingent legal aid funded (see here on LegalVoice). ‘All great in theory, and lawyers I’ve spoken to all seem to agree that the concept itself is a good one,’ wrote Rothwell. ‘But of course where it all falls down is the need for initial seed funding. Any notion that this could come from the government – or as Jackson had suggested in February, the National Lottery – seems wildly optimistic.’

 

About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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