‘People undervalue the importance of the rule of law. To take it seriously you have to have a properly funded justice system. You can’t get it on the cheap. It’s about our society’s ability to enable the resolution of disputes fairly, independently and honestly, in a civilised and timely manner. It’s as much a social service as health. I was profoundly disappointed when the then Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, failed to support the Judiciary over the Daily Mail’s ‘Enemies of the People’ headline in 2016. A Lord Chancellor who doesn’t have the confidence to stand up to the press or even to the prime minister isn’t in the right job.’

So says Sir Robert Neill MP, for the last nine years the influential and widely respected Conservative Chair of the Commons Justice Select Committee. Knighted for public service in 2020, he was made an honorary KC in January for his work in leading the Justice Committee. He has recently announced that he is standing down at the general election to spend more time with his wife, who suffered a stroke in 2019.

‘Becoming Chair of the Committee was the best decision I have ever made. It took me back to my roots at the Bar. As I get older I find that I think more and more as a barrister. Hopefully the Bar and its principles have never left me.’ The Committee examines mainly the policies and spending of the Ministry of Justice and the Law Officers’ Department and their agencies. Current topical concerns include the follow-up to its 2020 report on Private prosecutions: safeguards. ‘We welcome the government’s commitment to speed up the process of providing redress to everyone affected by the Horizon scandal; also its acceptance of our recommendation for a register of private prosecutions in England and Wales. But we want the government to accept our other recommendations for improving standards: there should be a binding code of standards for all private prosecutors and investigators; all bodies conducting private prosecutions should be subject to inspection by the Chief Inspector of the CPS; the Attorney General should be able to strip an organisation of its power to bring private prosecutions.

‘Many changes we want are slow burns. As Chair I introduced a traffic-light system to monitor follow-up of our recommendations so they didn’t get lost. We keep pressing, and the evidence on the Post Office has proved us right.

‘But we need to be careful about legislating to overturn individual convictions if the courts can address the issue themselves in a timely way. Everyone in Parliament possesses the best of intentions on this point. The Judiciary doesn’t want to hold things up. The Lady Chief Justice made valid points when she appeared before us in January. She told us it was not factually correct that the courts would be unable to deal with Horizon appeals in large volumes; nor that the Judiciary had given the green light to the proposed legislation.’

The Committee’s first success under Sir Bob’s chairmanship was scrapping the criminal courts charge on convicted defendants, introduced by Chris Grayling. ‘We always go on the evidence and set it out in our reports. The evidence was that it was virtually unenforceable and that judges and magistrates found it a waste of time. We reported it didn’t work and it was abolished within a year. We give a platform to the professions, including the Bar Council and the specialist Bar associations and individuals. It’s important that Parliament hears directly from practitioners. I conduct one-to-ones with ministers on behalf of the Committee to further our recommendations.’

Other wins on the Committee’s part include the reversal of another Grayling policy. ‘He had split the probation service and privatised part of it. We said it didn’t work. Robert Buckland took the decision to reverse the policy and bring probation back in house.

‘We were against employment tribunal fees. They were scrapped in 2017. And we have helped to move government to early funding for legal advice in matrimonial cases. Government wants more people to opt for mediation, but lawyers are the signposts to mediation, so people have to be enabled to consult them early.’

Sir Bob is pleased to be called an Essex boy. ‘My mother didn’t trust the hospital at Romford, near where we lived in Hornchurch, so I was born in Ilford.’ All places then in Essex, now in Greater London. ‘Dad worked mostly in sales but also on the production line at Ford’s. Mum managed a store’s shoe department and later set up a shop of her own. My grandparents included teachers and a docker. I went to the local primary and grammar and was in the first generation to go to university.’ He took law at LSE. ‘My love of history at school got me into politics as a Young Conservative in the 6th Form. Lots of my friends were Labour. I was instinctively a Conservative, traditionalist but reformist, never a right-winger; One Nation, more like Ted Heath, himself a working class lad who had gone into politics. I did acting and debating. I toyed with a career in journalism and, more briefly, in acting; and then it all came together around the idea of being a lawyer. I remember watching Boyd QC on TV in the 60s. He was a successful barrister, he drove a Rolls Royce and he had a glamorous girlfriend. I thought, “I could like that!” It was the advocacy that attracted me to the Bar. I didn’t want to be a lawyer without that.

‘At LSE we had brilliant teachers – JAG Griffith, Wedderburn, Zander – and there were practitioners on the part-time staff, not much older than us. I enjoyed jurisprudence; also public law, which was fascinatingly edging its way towards where it is now. There was a module on EC law. I thought, “I can’t see much coming from that.”’ So speaks the ardent Remain supporter! ‘I wish I had done a master’s but it wasn’t an option financially. My parents had split up by then. I needed to earn. I had been washing up in a Wimpey at Hornchurch during A-levels. I took a gap year and worked in the City, first in stockjobbing and then with a pension company. And Middle Temple was good on supporting its students.’ He was called in 1975 and is now a Bencher there.

‘I was attracted to both crime and planning chambers. It was the luck of the draw that crime came through first. One of our part-time tutors fixed me up with an interview at his chambers at 3 Hare Court, now 2 Bedford Row. I was successful. We weren’t a grand set then. We did mostly crime and a bit of common law. My first six was with someone who did private prosecutions against shoplifters. I got some of these when I was on my feet in my second six. I have seen the style of advocacy change over my professional lifetime, from the formal to the conversational. All advocacy is about persuasion; you have to adapt to the tribunal. I had what I would call an “ordinary guy” style with juries. As I gained experience I did a bit of everything: crime, the tail end of undefended divorce, county court work and small scale planning appeals. I was starting to get bigger work, almost entirely criminal defence; and then more prosecution and ‘white collar’ crime, for which my gap year in the City came in useful.’

In parallel, he was elected to Havering Borough Council at the age of 22. ‘I had a responsible remit at Havering but it didn’t do much for my social life. We mostly met in the evenings. I would be reading my briefs for next day in the margins of council meetings. I am sure my clerks wished I had not gone into politics. I had 16 years at Havering – in retrospect probably too long – but I remained politically active even though I wasn’t an elected representative anywhere.’ He stood for Parliament twice. ‘I was never much of a Thatcherite, so a safe seat didn’t come my way!’

A crossroads loomed in 2000. ‘I had applied unsuccessfully for silk a couple of times. I realised that I was only going to get it if I dropped the politics. Then a judge suggested I ought to sit and he offered to be a referee. At the same time I learned that the Party hierarchy was keen for me to stand for the new London Assembly. I was elected for Bexley and Bromley. I became Leader of the Opposition, against Ken Livingstone. By now I was doing 75/25 politics/law. Chambers accommodated me. There were shedloads of work to do on Fridays when the Assembly wasn’t sitting, and trials in the recesses.

‘Six years later there was a Parliamentary by-election for Bromley and Chislehurst. They wanted somebody with a local connection. A friend asked: “If you don’t go for it, will you kick yourself afterwards?” I went for it. There was a bruising campaign.’ He won.

‘My confidence on my feet helped me as a new MP but unfortunately there is seldom enough time to develop your argument in the Commons as you would in court. It was getting harder to keep my practice going. I found myself rushing to court by the skin of my teeth. David Cameron made me a shadow local government minister in 2008. I became a door tenant thereafter. I was being seen as a local government specialist, understandably, but I felt I was getting sidetracked from the law. For two years after the 2010 general election I enjoyed being a minister at Communities and Local Government under Eric Pickles. By 2012 I was probably too old for advancement up the ministerial ladder. David Cameron spoke to me. No one could have sacked me with more courtesy and charm. Next day he phoned and asked me to be a vice chair of the Party.

‘Now as Chair of the Justice Committee I have got a job that’s more significant and influential than a junior minister’s and one that has given me scope to get back to my legal roots.’ He is on to his ninth Lord Chancellor as chair.

Advice to others starting out at the Bar? ‘If you feel it’s not for you, don’t be afraid to try something else. But if it is for you, go for it. It’s hard work. Be persistent – success doesn’t come at once. Be true to yourself. You’ll have to tell truth to people who may not want to hear it. Stand up to be counted. The ethical code of the Bar is one of our great strengths. We need more of it in politics.’ 

© CC/UK Parliament
Sir Bob, 71, is standing down at the general election to spend more time with his wife, Ann-Louise, who suffered a stroke in 2019. He is a Bencher at Middle Temple. Sir Bob was elected as Bromley and Chislehurst MP in 2006, served as a junior minister (2010-2012) in the coalition government under David Cameron, and was appointed Chair of the Commons Justice Committee in 2015.
© UK Parliament TV

Sir Bob questions Fujitsu’s representative about its moral and financial obligations in the Post Office/Horizon scandal at the Business and Trade Committee hearing on 16 January 2024.