Let me start at the end: Sir Henry Brooke’s speech received a standing ovation; it was spontaneous, heartfelt and thoroughly deserved. As one tasked to report it, the question is, can I do it justice? Fortunately the text of the speech is widely available but reading it will not fully explain the surge that brought the audience to its feet. Certainly there were rhetorical flourishes and it might be tempting to imagine a passage such as ‘... now that the office of a tough old-style Lord Chancellor is as dead as the dodo, Parliament must give teeth to a new Justice Commission, to see that justice, in all its emanations, can never again become a Treasury lickspittle...’ had been delivered with a Churchillian relish.
However, this was not an orator’s speech but one delivered with a quiet and building power. There was no lack of passion (read the speech on sirhenrybrooke.me and you will see it and you may even detect an underlying cold fury in the text) but there was none of that in the delivery, which was almost dispassionate and all the more compelling for it.
The distilled essence of the careful research that went into the Bach Commission report The Right to Justice was given the spotlight: the government has spent £1bn less on legal aid than the £450m saving it had anticipated; fewer than 100 people had received exceptional funding in the last year as against the 1,000s anticipated when exceptional funding was introduced; almost 100,000 fewer people are now entitled to early legal help with housing law than was the case five years ago. But these are not real savings as Sir Henry pointed out, the government accepted a study that suggested £1,700 spent saving a 16-year-old girl from being wrongly declared intentionally homeless had probably saved the Treasury in the region of £20,000 in the long run. The family courts inevitably featured significantly; their problems encapsulated by a letter from an unnamed district judge who had written to Sir Henry shortly before publication of the Bach Report: ‘Every day in the family court, with so many unrepresented litigants, is a long nightmare. So very many have mental health problems, drugs, language, learning difficulties. I can no longer do justice or protect the vulnerable child or adult. I am in despair.’