Westminster Watch - April 2013

Toby Craig looks at an eventful month inside and outside the Palace of Westminster and the lessons to be learnt

The Rise and the Fall

What price success? Or, as Chris Huhne might be asking himself, what Pryce success? As the door of his Wandsworth prison cell clattered behind him, Huhne began to learn a lesson which few politicians (or citizens) have to suffer about the consequences of our actions. However, the tangled web woven, a tapestry of lies unravelled before a packed Southwark Crown Court as Huhne pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice and his ex-wife, Vicky Pryce, was convicted, at the end of a second trial, of the same offence. Both were sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment, with very little sympathy expressed by Mr. Justice Sweeney. Moral judgments to one side, it is a sorry saga from which none of the parties emerge with much credit. With his political career in tatters, like Jonathan Aitken before him, perhaps Huhne will find a new cause to devote his time to after the humiliation of incarceration.

One might be forgiven for assuming that such a spectacular fall from grace, along with lurid allegations about former Lib Dem Chief Executive Lord Rennard’s wandering hands (currently the subject of an independent investigation), would seal the Party’s fate in the Eastleigh by-election. Not a bit of it. Mike Thornton reclaimed the seat vacated by Chris Huhne, with the Tories embarrassingly beaten into third place by UKIP. It certainly put a spring in Nick Clegg’s step at the Party’s spring gathering. Business Secretary, Vince Cable has also been more vocal about the prospect of further borrowing, shortly before the Budget. That would mark a departure from the Coalition’s strategy up till now. On the other side of the fence, Liam Fox called for an end to ring-fencing and a five-year public spending freeze to pay for tax cuts. The strains are starting to show... Ed Miliband can happily watch on, as polls suggested that Tory marginal seats are in grave danger.

Preparing to respond

Whilst events outside the Village dominated the headlines, there was no shortage of action on the inside, as LASPO implementation loomed and the Crime and Courts, Justice and Security and Children and Family Bills all continued their passage through Parliament. For some time now we have been pondering the future of criminal legal aid. We need not ponder much longer. The Lord Chancellor announced that he would be bringing forward the consultation on the next round of criminal contracts, with a clear steer that price competition would be at the heart of the new scheme. There is much which can, and will, be written about the Government’s proposals. But until they are published in April, it will still be speculation. There will be an eight week window in which to respond fully to the consultation. Many will do just that. One thing we can all be quite clear on is the conscious decision that some areas of Government spending are sacrosanct. The justice system is not one of them. Successive governments have chipped away at a legal aid system which was once something to be proud of, but increasingly is hanging on for dear life.

It is welcome news that after a tireless Bar Council campaign, the Ministry of Justice conceded that wealthy defendants’ assets should be unfrozen to meet legal costs. But where will those savings go? That is the question which still needs to be answered.

Looking away from criminal legal aid, the civil side is no brighter. It is probably even bleaker. At the start of this month, civil legal aid was removed from areas spanning social care, private family law, immigration, personal injury and more. For all the lip service, it speaks volumes as to the value Westminster places on effective access to justice. For a relatively small amount, in the context of the budget as a whole, it seems a significant principle to give away.

The double whammy of the implementation of LASPO and the rushed through interpretation of Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations caused consternation amongst civil practitioners. They warned, ahead of a House of Lords debate, that a number of deficiencies in the Conditional Fee Agreements (CFA) Order and Damages-based Agreements (DBA) Regulations would reduce access to justice. A Bar Council briefing for peers warned that rushing changes through for a 1 April deadline presented unnecessary risks to deserving claimants, who would suffer from unclear rules.

All in all, it presents a wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs.

Looking abroad

This is all in such stark contrast to the private side, which is a so much more positive story. As WW went to press, the Ministry of Justice prepared to launch the second iteration of its international action plan, working in tandem with the legal sector to promote the English legal system. It has been a huge success, making a steady and significant contribution to GDP. Of course, part of the strength of our legal system is our respect for, and adherence to, the Rule of Law. That is underpinned by effective access to justice; WW has every confidence that you can spot the link.

Whatever the state of publicly funded legal services (which this column will continue to scrutinise), the privately funded side is also worthy of celebration. All over the world, English and Welsh practitioners, and the small, specialist Bar is recognised and revered. English law is one of our finest and proudest exports and the Government’s commitment to its promotion is welcome. The common law world, in particular, looks to these shores for signs of the future of the industry. The Legal Services Act is always a hot topic at international gatherings and the high quality, cost effective and entrepreneurial approach of the commercial and chancery Bars has not gone unnoticed. The challenge now is to entrench that thinking across Government departments in a hope that it will engender a greater understanding domestically as to the importance of the legal sector to our economy. The signs are positive.

The launch of the new action plan provides an opportunity for the Lord Chancellor to win some friends in the profession. So far, they have been thin on the ground. It is an opportunity he should take.

Toby Craig is the head of communications at the Bar Council.