How Michael Gove is changing the tune on justice reform

Lady Justice, meet your new Lord Chancellor. Ronnie Macdonald, CC BY-SA

In his first speech as Lord Chancellor and justice secretary, Michael Gove has painted a dystopian picture of a UK legal system in which the rich receive justice and the poor do not. Many would acknowledge his depiction as accurate.

Striking a bold tone in his new job, Gove has said that major change is on the horizon – and given hints as to how it should be achieved. But even though his vision appears laudable, he must be careful how he goes about bringing it to life.

Gove recounted with dismay his observations of court proceedings throughout the country, where attempts to bring justice are thwarted by procedural inefficiency and inadequate legal representation. He described a “creaking outdated system” in urgent need of reform.

Few people who work within the legal system would disagree with this view. But there are many who would say that the failures are in part due to consistent underfunding by successive governments and sustained attacks on legal aid rates.

A different approach

Gove does seem to be signalling a clear change in direction from that of his predecessor. Where Chris Grayling spoke of “fat cat lawyers”, Gove speaks of the “scrupulous patience, intellectual diligence and culture of excellence” that characterises some lawyers.

Perhaps more importantly, he recognises the economic value to the country as a whole of having a justice system of international repute sustained by advocates of the highest calibre.

Gove endorses the conclusions of the Leveson review about “efficiency in the criminal justice system”. The review, published in early 2015, set out 55 recommendations to expedite cases through the criminal justice system from arrest to trial.

Some of these, such as a limit on the content of advocate’s speeches can be achieved easily. Some, however, will require sustained and substantial investment. The justice system proposed by Leveson would involve running preliminary hearings virtually to save time and money. But that will require high quality, reliable and secure technology (as well as lawyers, judges and court staff who can operate it).

New gig for Gove. 'Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA'

Gove’s speech also offered a glimmer of hope for legal aid lawyers. He said it makes more sense to find savings by “looking again” at the court estate than to cut this “vital” service. That sounds like a plan to sell off underused buildings, though, which will need careful thought.

In many rural areas, a local magistrates court might only be used on a part-time basis but they nevertheless save witnesses and defendants from having to make lengthy and expensive journeys to court. And, as Gove recognises, these are often people from the poorest sections of society. Many rural areas have already experienced closures and the courts that have taken over their case loads have experienced the frustration of cases being delayed due to public transport delays.

Making friends with angry lawyers

There was also an indication in this speech that Gove is expecting those at the more profitable end of the legal profession to contribute more by way of free legal advice and representation to the neediest in society.

As yet no details have been released explaining how this will be achieved and what services he is expecting them to provide. In reality those who are in the particularly lucrative areas of law often have very specialist areas of knowledge and expertise which serve them well in their chosen sector but may not make them ideally suited to the type of work undertaken by lawyers who work with the most vulnerable in society on a daily basis.

There are of course, very many successful lawyers who willingly undertake pro-bono work to a very high standard but a system which operates through compulsion risks forcing those without the necessary skills or enthusiasm into an already sensitive situation.

There is bound to be a certain amount of cynicism about Gove’s ability to deliver his vision for the legal system, and about the mechanisms he wants to put in place to achieve it. At the same time though, many will welcome Gove’s recognition of high-quality advocacy as a vital component of democracy – even if that should be a given from the Lord Chancellor.

If Gove wants his proposals to succeed, he will need the support and the trust of the legal profession. That trust that can only be won through dialogue and a commitment to investment in both resources and staff.