In the Media

New era of justice

PUBLISHED July 11, 2007

The reshuffle has proved popular ith the legal profession, as Grania Langdon-Down explains

Gordon Brown?s shake-up of the top legal jobs in government ? putting an old hand in charge of the Ministry of Justice and appointing the first black and female Attorney-General ? have proved popular moves.

Both face in-trays bulging with complex and highly controversial issues inherited from their predecessors. But they also face new challenges set out in Mr Brown?s first Commons statement as Prime Minister last week, when he unveiled his Green Paper, The Governance of Britain.

Mr Straw will lead the constitutional reform agenda while Baroness Scotland?s job as Attorney-General will come under scrutiny ?to ensure that the office retains public confidence?. There will be a review this summer of the potential conflict in her position as a government minister and chief legal adviser, and her role as guardian of the public interest.

So, while Mr Straw?s appointment as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor has been greeted with a palpable sense of relief from the legal profession, it is tinged with concern that legal aid and legal services reforms will have to compete for attention.

As for Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, there is praise from those who have worked with her for her intelligence and approachability. But, unlike Mr Straw, she is ?untested? in such a high-profile job.

However, she has avoided the early minefield of the cash-for-peerages case. She has made it clear that, pending the outcome of the review, she will not take decisions on whether or not to prosecute in individual criminal cases unless national security or the law requires it. This means a decision to halt an investigation, such as the recent BAE-Saudi bribes inquiry, would still be possible.

Roger Smith, director of law reform group Justice, says Lady Scotland has nothing like the record or experience of her predecessor, Lord Goldsmith. ?She seems competent but quiet. She is really untested. The question will be just how strong is she, both as a lawyer in making decisions and as a person in seeing them through? Lord Goldsmith was a communicator and willing to talk about his role ? there is a fantastic opportunity for her to do the same, but the jury is out on whether she can deliver.?

The Law Society and Bar Council have welcomed the appointments. Bar Council chairman Geoffrey Vos is delighted the bar has provided the first black woman to attend the cabinet.

He is also enthusiastic about Mr Straw. ?He is a lawyer and has extensive experience in home affairs. As such, we can expect that he will be able to resolve the important outstanding issues arising from the creation of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), such as the ring-fencing of the judiciary, and the need to ensure that the pressure to fund prisons does not adversely affect the legal aid budget.?

However, his background as a barrister ? he was called in 1972 but only practised for two years before entering politics as a special adviser to Barbara Castle ? does not mean lawyers should expect special treatment. In an interview with the Gazette in 1998 after a year as Home Secretary, he was quick to launch an attack on criminal solicitors, accusing them of dragging out cases to ensure their legal aid fees. His populist approach to law and order also saw him round on ?woolly-minded Hampstead liberal lawyers?.

However, Rodney Warren, director of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, views his appointment positively. ?I think it is refreshing to see someone of the experience of Jack Straw as Justice Secretary. I believe he is a man who is able to take a fresh and objective look at the ministry?s areas of responsibility, in particular legal aid. I think he will be brave enough to do that.

?The increase in the responsibilities of the new ministry has resulted in acknowledgement that it is now quite possibly one of the great offices of state and it needs someone very senior at the helm.?

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the changes in government. Andrew Keogh, partner with top criminal defence firm Tuckers, says: ?A change of government is always bad because the new leader wants to do populist things which cost money. Every day, you hear about people being denied life-saving drugs. They are letting women die of breast cancer. They are not going to give legal aid more money. I am far more pessimistic than I was previously.?

However, Richard Miller, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, says Mr Straw?s appointment is ?good news? for the legal aid system, given his reputation as a ?thoughtful politician who is willing to listen to constructive criticism?.

Mr Smith welcomes Mr Straw?s appointment as a political heavyweight. ?He has enormous experience and is, in essence, a democrat, for all he was rather too close to the war. I have heard him say he is convinced by the need for a written constitution and that it is important to keep, and build on, the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.?

But Mr Smith is less convinced that he will tackle the legal aid reforms. ?I don?t think either Lord Irvine or Lord Falconer ever really got interested in legal aid and I don?t think Jack Straw will have any time to get interested in it. It is understandable that the government wants to control the cost, but the way they are going about it with competitive tendering is crude in the extreme.
?Legal aid policy is like looking at a car crash waiting to happen and I don?t think Jack Straw will get near it. It has probably gone too far. But if he was really bold, he would take stock and consider whether this is the right road to take.?

His concern overall is that Mr Straw inherits a department which ?doesn?t make any sense. It has too many functions going in different directions?. But, he thinks Mr Straw will seek consensus with the judges. ?He would be an idiot to go for the judges and I see no sign that he is one.?

Mr Smith also welcomes the appointment of Liberal Democrat Lord Lester QC, who is a member of Justice?s council, as an adviser to Mr Straw on constitutional issues. ?No one knows the British constitution better than he does,? he says.

For Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, Mr Straw must remain committed to the Human Rights Act. ?In recent years, the beleaguered Act has fallen victim to ridiculous urban myths and become a political scapegoat for administrative bungles. The MoJ must break with this folly, and instead defend and promote human rights protections.?

There are new and old faces at the MoJ. New to the ministry is parliamentary under-secretary Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who gets the ?poisoned chalice? of legal aid. He is supported on legal aid in the Commons by another newcomer, Maria Eagle, who was a senior claimant solicitor at a Liverpool law firm until she became an MP in 1997. As parliamentary under-secretary, she also has the lead on criminal justice and the Courts Service.

Lord Hunt, who became a peer in 1997, resigned as a junior health minister in 2003 in protest at the government?s policy over Iraq. The low-profile peer, whose earlier career in the NHS included being the first chief executive of the NHS Confederation, takes over legal aid from Vera Baird QC, who has been appointed Solicitor-General.

There was a lot of anger in the profession over her handling of the legal aid reforms. Mr Miller says: ?I think most people feel having a new legal aid minister will improve the relationship between the profession and the government.?

Bridget Prentice remains at the MoJ, having already been there for two years. A teacher with a law degree, she took a hard line as she began piloting the Legal Services Bill through the Commons and she keeps responsibility for legal services reform. Commentators see little chance of significant change ?unless something c
omes down from above?. However, Mr Miller hopes there may be ?some reconsideration of the speed with which they are bringing in alternative business structures?.

David Hanson continues as prisons minister after moving to the newly-formed MoJ in May from the Northern Ireland Office. Michael Wills, once of the old Lord Chancellor?s Department, is minister of state responsible for, among other things, human rights and the Land Registry.

For Ms Baird, the move to Solicitor-General comes at an ?exciting? time of constitutional change. She also plans to press issues ?dear? to her, such as improving the prosecution of rape and domestic violence. Admitting phone taps into evidence will be another hot issue, she says.

With the legal profession hoping for a more sympathetic ear from the new team at the MoJ, Mr Smith says the message that Mr Brown is sending with appointments such as Lord Lester is that he is ?serious? about reform. ?One of the distressing aspects of the Blair years,? he says, ?was the way some of the major reforms in the field of the Home Office and Ministry of Justice were made on the hoof.?

There are some big decisions looming for Mr Straw and his team. The profession will hope they take their time to get them right.

Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist