Westminster Watch

There’s more to life than Jazz?

Charles Hale and Toby Craig consider the impression the new Lord Chancellor is making.

AAs the new boys and girls of Westminster Village begin to feel comfortable at their appointed desks, so too the fresh crop of Ministers begin to fidget over the contents of their red boxes. Some are more comfortable than others. None, it would seem are as relaxed as the new Lord Chancellor. Perhaps it’s his love of jazz that is keeping him cool in the political heat. Whatever it is he is making a big and early impression.

Harsh times ahead

The Emergency Budget was delivered on 22 June. Having heard it, none of us could be left in any doubt as to the harsh times which lie ahead. Only the cider drinkers (Western Circuiteers take note) had something to cheer.  Other than the ring-fenced areas of Health and International Development, all Departments are bracing themselves, with the autumn spending review fast approaching. The MoJ might need to slash as much as 25 per cent of its budget, which will amount to some £2 billion of savings. That is just short of the entire sum currently set aside for legal aid. Yes really …

In speeches to the CBI and at the Mansion House dinner, the Chancellor described legal services as a key export. Now more than ever, we will need to continue to press the Bar’s case as a valued profession, which contributes hugely to UK Plc.

A new Justice agenda

Back to our new Lord Chancellor. He recently used an invitation to speak at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College to deliver his first keynote speech in his new role. The first impressions are that the “Big Beast” has started to roar.

Never one to be constrained by formalities, just moments into his address, Clarke decamped from his immaculate and branded dais, on account of an overtly slanted podium, and sought refuge on a more balanced surface across the stage (to the horror of his on-looking officials). Not ideal perhaps, but the new Coalition Government is all about operating in unfamiliar surroundings after all.

The broad themes of the speech were prisons, sentencing, family law and legal aid. These are substantial issues, all of which are affected by the battered state of the public purse. In the case of legal aid the Lord Chancellor made clear that a “fundamental look” was to be had.

On all issues, the Bar will have to and must work constructively with the government to ensure cuts are properly targeted and do not damage the very fabric of the administration of justice. It was refreshing to hear from a Secretary of State for Justice whose starting position seems to be to do what is right, rather than what sounds right, that of course has long been his style. On matters such as prisons and sentencing policy, there is a rare opportunity to reform the system with the imperative not just to save money but also to produce a better system. The Lord Chancellor has come out of the Tory closet and seems determined to shake off that old conservative suit, Prison Works, so loved by Michael Howard. The CBA will be sure to assist the LC as much as it can in the debates which will follow, in the public (and the Bar’s) interest.

So too, the family Bar will engage with the Family Justice Review Panel as it takes a nuts and bolts look at the way family law operates, with a particular emphasis on whether the adversarial system works in private law matters. Compulsory mediation will undoubtedly be high on the list of possible promoted changes, but if it fails it will be to the courts that families will look for decisions and that would be two sets of costs. No one should think there will be easy answers and minds must remain firmly open. Stephen Cobb QC and his team have made clear their desire to assist and inform the panel. WW will keep a close eye on the panel’s work.

Legal aid issues continue to be omnipresent. It now seems that rather than continuing to chip away at the edges (the LC says no more salami slicing), the MoJ is taking a far closer look at the system itself and how it operates. Cuts will be made, but it may also mean substantial changes to the system itself and, for criminal legal aid, how the Bar bids for work. The Bar Council and its committees will be working hard to prepare the profession for the changes ahead, and to present our views to the government; the only place for burying heads is on the beach ...

All Party Parliamentary Group

The LC addressed the All Party Parliamentary Group (“the APPG”) on Legal and Constitutional Affairs a week after his King’s speech on a similar theme, at its AGM.

The Bar Council has been hard at work, touching base with the new intake of parliamentarians with legal backgrounds, as it seeks to assist them with the challenges ahead. It was good to see so many of them in attendance. In introducing the new barrister MPs in the June issue of WW, we neglected to mention Jessica Lee (Erewash). Apologies.

The APPG’s AGM saw a change of leadership. Lord Hunt of Wirral (no not the former Legal Aid Minister, the other one!) takes the helm. We thank Lord Brennan for his substantial contribution to the APPG over the past few years.

Maiden speeches in the House of Commons must be akin to a first time in the Court of Appeal or worse. All the more surprising then that the recent debate on Anonymity of Rape Defendants saw such astonishing first performances by new barrister MPs on this most important of issues (which had been aired a few days before at the APPG meeting) and followed the government’s announcement that it would introduce a Bill, with a free vote, on this matter. Rehman Chishti’s maiden speech was described by the Minister winding up for the government (Jonathan Djanogly) as “excellent and  thoughtful”. Anna Soubry’s intervention and her vigorous speech was roundly commended by the House and Robert Buckland and Guy Opperman both gave cool headed, well informed performances. Congratulations to all.

Constitutionally speaking

The other big milestone that lies ahead for the Bar is the vast constitutional reform landscape. The most notorious item on the agenda is electoral reform, which will doubtless fill many news pages between now and next spring’s Alternative Vote referendum. As the AVs and AV-nots go their separate ways, time will tell how the Coalition will grapple with this potentially divisive issue. The landscape though is much wider, incorporating House of Lords’ reform, the role of Parliament and the balance between the citizen and the State. These are huge issues, which will influence our democracy for years to come. The Bar enjoys a wealth of expertise on the practical application of constitutional change.

So as Parliament heads for recess and with the mellifluous sounds of Louis Armstrong on the LC’s IPod, all rise, we’ll see you back refreshed in September.

Charles Hale is Chair of the Public Affairs Committee.

Toby Craig is the Head of Communications at the Bar Council