WestminsterWatch - May 2011

Just what does the Coalition Government stand for? Charles Hale and Toby Craig investigate…

As we approach the first anniversary of the Coalition Government and the all-important alternative vote referendum, the past month has given us some of the clearest indications yet of what the unexpected alliance is all about.

 

Information overload


The economic crisis remains stark, and the Chancellor delivered his budget against that seemingly perennial background, seeking to crank up the engine of recovery with cheaper fuel prices.

In a busy month for those with an eye to legal reforms, the Ministry of Justice announced its plans to move forward with civil litigation funding proposals. Many worrying features and threats to access to justice remain. There is also no sign of retreat on some of the most egregious elements of legal aid plans. This is despite the Justice Select Committee’s report highlighting a number of potential flaws.
Recalling the Government’s claim that our legal aid budget is disproportionate to that of the rest of the world, it is worth noting the Committee’s view: “When the costs of courts, public prosecution services and legal aid are combined, the budget in England and Wales as a percentage of the GDP per capita is equal to the average.” That comes as no shock to the Bar, but we await the Government’s formal response. David Norgrove also published a lengthy interim Family Justice Review, with much detail to be unpicked, on which more later.

The Bar Council has also been engaging in public debate, hosting the inaugural Bar Debate, in the world famous Court One of the Old Bailey. Moderated by the Chairman of the Bar, panellists Paul McDowell (Chief Executive, Nacro), Nicola Padfield (Law Faculty, University of Cambridge), Peter Hitchens (commentator and author) and Lord Justice Hughes had a lively and engaging discussion on “Bang ‘em up Britain”: Are we taking a rational approach to sentencing policy? Supported by a live twitter feed  (follow tweets @thebarcouncil and @twitbarrister if you don’t already) provided by members of the audience, the promising format will be repeated later in the year. Two recent developments in Westminster of great mainstream interest have given us some insight into this Government’s broader philosophy.

 

 

 

Grow


First, alongside the budget, came the BIS and Treasury-backed “The Plan for Growth” White Paper. Described by Vince Cable and George Osborne in the foreword as “an urgent call for action”, the Plan for Growth White Paper entreaties that “Britain has lost ground in the world’s economy, and needs to catch up.” The paper outlines a strategy via which the decline of the UK economy can be arrested and the private sector can be encouraged and enabled to grow and flourish. The White Paper adopts a number of key messages which the Bar Council has been communicating over recent months particularly in relation to the value and growth potential of legal services in the City of London and overseas markets.

The Bar can take some encouragement from the proposals, which endorse the view that despite the huge difficulties with legal aid, there are genuine opportunities to diversify into privately funded and international work. The UK’s legal system is noted as being respected all over the world, which is why so many companies choose to use UK courts to settle commercial differences.

It is an ambitious blueprint and makes many favourable noises, which will have to be supported by commitment and action for the lifetime of the Parliament and beyond. However, it does suggest that the Coalition Government understands that growth is not something which can be led by the public sector. More importantly, it recognises that if the private sector is one of the keys to unlocking the UK economy’s recovery, it has to be supported. Constantly bashing the professions will not be the answer.

 

 

 

 

Nurture


Second, the Deputy Prime Minister published the Government’s long-awaited “Social Mobility Strategy, Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers”. Launched by Nick Clegg at the sparkling new premises of a leading professional services firm, the Strategy is heavy on detail and aspiration. It was used by the media as a good opportunity to remind the Deputy Prime Minster that he was the recipient of an informal and unpaid internship (one of the bars to entry which the Strategy is seeking to remove), but perhaps this misses the point somewhat. That reflects the system a number of years ago. That others have benefited in the past is no reason why they can’t tackle the issue now.

More worrying (and embarrassing) are the grumbles from recent interns in Liberal Democrat offices about their unpaid internships...tut tut.
With social mobility tsar Alan Milburn holding the Government to account, the proposed life-cycle approach, developing seven key indicators to determine the long-term success of the Strategy, is extremely ambitious. However, it is an important and welcome commitment.

The Bar has for some time been investing in and supporting efforts to remove irrelevant barriers to entering the profession. While the Bar remains the victim of many stereotypes (see “Billy” the head clerk in Silks), it is working hard to challenge both the perception and the reality. In the Deputy Prime Minister’s own words: “This is a long-term undertaking. There is no magic wand we can wave to see immediate effects.” And with that he was whipped away by his very own Debbie McGee...

 

 

 

 

Family (Review) first


The Norgrove interim review is a substantive and complex report, which picks up many of the points made by the Family Law Bar Association. All family practitioners should invest time in studying it. It is absolutely essential that any changes to family law are made with the greatest of care. These are reforms which may last a generation, it is worth getting them right.

The great worry though is this; the Review now moves into a period of consultation before the final version will be unveiled in the autumn. In the meantime, the Government will finalise its legal aid reforms. What’s the point? Given the level of attention and expertise (and cost) that the Norgrove Review plainly includes, it seems utterly bizarre not to await its final conclusions to make sure that they are at least compatible with the Government’s reforms.

Joined up thinking? Perhaps not just yet. ?