In the Media

Justice combo wins thumbs up

PUBLISHED July 3, 2007

The sigh of relief in legal circles last week as Gordon Brown announced his new legal team was palpable. The shake-up of top government legal jobs is not so much new for old as old for old. Jack Straw, the new Justice Secretary, is well known to judges and lawyers alike from his stint as Home Secretary and Baroness Scotland of Asthal, QC, the new Attorney-General, as a minister in both the Home Office and then the Lord Chancellor?s Department. Both, too, are barristers.

There were immediate welcomes from the Law Society, Bar and legal aid lawyers. Geoffrey Vos, QC, chairman of the Bar, said: ?We are pretty upbeat about both.? Straw was a big-hitter with experience; it was good for the justice system, he said, that someone of that calibre was in charge. And it was ?a tribute to the diversity of the profession that the Bar had produced the first black and first woman Attorney-General?. Lady Scotland, he added, would bring fresh ideas to the role.

Both ministers were immediately plunged in the deep end with the discovery of the car bomb in Central London. But that aside, there are plenty of other pressing matters in their in-trays. For Straw, the priority is prison overcrowding followed by the stand-off with the judges, who are locked in a dispute over guarantees that they want to protect their budget and independence in the new Ministry of Justice.

One Whitehall observer said: ?Straw understands where the judges are coming from and will respect their constitutional independence. As Home Secretary he made communications with the judiciary an important part of the process and had regular chats.?

The outgoing Justice Secretary, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, was similarly good in the diplomatic stakes but was tainted by the way the ministry was created in a rush and without consultation. Straw at least has the benefit of starting afresh and the chances of a resolution are good. As Home Secretary, Straw, 60, made clear that he wanted to avoid the kind of public rows seen between the Conservative Home Secretary, Michael Howard, and the judges. He felt such spectacles were unedifying; consensus behind the scenes, not public conflict, was his style.

The prisons crisis may be a tougher nut to crack. If Straw is emollient with the judges over constitutional concerns, his record on the broader law-and-order front is populist. One of his first battles with the legal profession was over plans to scrap trial by jury; he lost, accusing ?woolly-minded Hampstead liberal? lawyers of ?knee-jerk? resistance to all legal reform. A Christian socialist, he also upset the penal liberal establishment when he insisted that Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderer, should never be released from prison.

For Lady Scotland, 51, the appointment to one of the most tricky portfolios in government notches up another two firsts. Lady Scotland has already entered the records as the first black woman QC, in 1991. A career barrister destined to be a High Court judge, she found herself plucked by Tony Blair into government in 1997.

Top of her in-tray will be the cash-for-peerages affair and whether to distance herself from any decision on prosecution as her predecessor Lord Goldsmith declined to do. Second is her own role, now under scrutiny after concerns that the holder could not wear his or her various hats of minister, legal adviser and head of the prosecutions service without apparent conflicts of interest.

Poised, and with an almost aristocratic air, Lady Scotland?s charm has won admirers, particularly in the Lords, where ?she has gone down well?, observers say. The tenth of 12 children, she was born in Dominica and came to Britain the Fifties. She went to a grammar school in Walthamstow and London University. She is married to Richard Mawhinney, brother of the former Tony Party chairman, Brian.

Some say her relative lack of political experience showed at the Home Office and that she had fared better in the more legal corridors of the Lord Chancellor?s Department. So how will she do as Attorney-General? She will want the role to be seen as less political, although Lord Goldsmith told MPs last week that he did not see himself as a politician, he had never taken decisions for politician reasons and he was a ?lawyer first and foremost?. Keith Vaz, the Labour MP for Leicester East, said that Lady Scotland would not be ?as much a frontline politician as Lord Goldsmith and rather more detached?. And, he added, ?she will command respect from the Bar?.

Michael Smyth, head of public policy at Clifford Chance, agreed that the Attorney-General would have a ?winning and engaging? style. But would she, he asked, take on the big court cases for the Government as did Lord Goldsmith, a highly experienced silk?

As for Straw ? whom Smyth predicted for the job weeks ago ? he said: ?The programme of constitutional reform suits Jack Straw but his responsibility for prisons will be burdensome.? The concern, he said, was whether, as a result, issues to do with the administration of justice ?may not command as much attention?. That concern is shared by the judges ? whether courts and legal aid will be subsumed to the interests of the prisons.

The new ministers come with a fair wind. But with 1,000 prisoners a month to be released early ?for some time to come? ? and the cash-for-peerages decision ahead, they know that conditions are far from settled.