Former journalist and controversial coalition education secretary, Michael Gove, has replaced fellow media-man, Chris Grayling, as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, following the Conservative’s surprise victory at the ballot box – the second non-lawyer to be appointed to the post by Prime Minister David Cameron.

Michael Gove’s key policy objective will be to secure the Conservative Party’s Manifesto commitment to bin the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.

Under the plans, which could plunge the country into a constitutional crisis, Britain would also withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights if the Council of Europe rejects the reforms.

Michael Gove studied English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and, like his predecessor, worked for the BBC and Channel 4 before entering Parliament.

“Liberal” on justice

While working as a columnist for The Times newspaper in the late 1990s Michael Gove wrote a piece in which he described himself as “liberal on criminal justice”, but called for the return of hanging.

Absence of the death penalty, he said, had “led to a corruption of our criminal justice system, the erosion of all our freedoms and has made the punishment of the innocent more likely”.

He said: “Were I ever alone in the dock I would not want to be arraigned before our flawed tribunals, knowing my freedom could be forfeit as a result of political pressures. I would prefer a fair trial, under the shadow of the noose.”

Despite the opposition of many lawyers to the criminal legal aid cuts and reforms that Michael Gove will also be charged with implementing, representative groups have cautiously extended the hand of co-operation.

Bar Chairman, Alistair MacDonald QC, congratulated him on his appointment and said: “We are looking forward to representing the Bar’s interests to the new Secretary of State, as well as other ministers and officials at the Ministry of Justice, to ensure that justice is a priority for the new government.”

Post-election reshuffle

Outgoing Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, who increased his share of the vote in his Epsom and Ewell constituency, was made Leader of the House of Commons, where he will shoulder the responsibility for the government’s constitutional reforms including the further devolution of powers to Scotland.

Elsewhere at the Ministry of Justice team, Mike Penning was re-appointed Minister of State, jointly with the Home Office, and solicitor Shailesh Vara and Andrew Selous remained in post as Parliamentary Under Secretaries.

Former solicitor at magic circle firm Linklaters, Dominic Raab, re-elected in his Esher and Walton seat, was appointed a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, as was Gosport MP, Caroline Dinenage, who is also Minister for Equalities at the Department for Education.

Criminal barristers Jeremy Wright QC and Robert Buckland QC retained their posts as Attorney and Solicitor General respectively.

Shadow justice team

Labour party grandee and former Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, reprises his former role in opposition, replacing Sadiq Khan, who is set to run for Mayor of London.

Barrister and Hammersmith MP Andy Slaughter remained in the shadow justice team and Lord Bach and Karl Turner remained in their posts as shadow Attorney and Solicitor General respectively.

While former Magic Circle solicitor and Streatham MP, Chuka Ummuna, withdrew from the Labour leadership race two days after he declared himself a candidate.

Lawyers elected

Among the crop of barristers newly elected to the Commons was former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer QC, returned in the safe Labour seat of Holborn and St Pancras.

Conservative barristers elected for the first time, include: Victoria Atkins of Red Lion Chambers in Louth and Horncastle; Serjeant’s Inn’s James Berry, who unseated high profile Lib Dem Ed Davey in Kingston and Surbiton; Suella Fernandes of No5 Chambers in Fareham; South Square’s Lucy Frazer QC in South East Cambridgeshire, former government lawyer Victoria Prentis in Banbury, and Michael Tomlinson of 3 Paper Buildings in Mid Dorset and Poole North.

New solicitor MPs included: former Clifford Chance man Alan Mak, elected in the safe Tory seat of Havant; Richard Burgon of Thompson’s in Leeds East; former TSol solicitor Alberto Costa, in Leicestershire; Will Quince of Thompson Smith and Puxon in Colchester, and Jo Stevens, a director at Thompsons, in Cardiff Central.

North of the border, barrister Joanna Cherry QC won Edinburgh South West and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh was elected in Ochil & South Perthshire, both for the Scottish National Party. 

One high profile lawyer to lose their seat was Liberal Democrat and coalition Justice Minister Simon Hughes, defeated after 32 years in Bermondsey and Old Southwark.

See also Westminster Watch.