In an exclusive interview with John van der Luit-Drummond, the shadow attorney and solicitor generals discuss the Lord Chancellorship, legal aid and why the profession should vote Labour

Speaking at the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Legal Aid earlier this week, shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter MP admitted that any future Labour administration will be limited to the current government’s revenue spending plans.

The minister’s statement reinforces comments made last September at a meeting organised by Justice Alliance UK in Manchester in which he said: “We’re not going to get in a Tardis and go back to before. We are in a world where resources are tight and it would not be right to pretend otherwise.

“We are going to be honest about the tightness of resources – we can’t tackle everything immediately and other elements [of public spending] will have a higher place in the queue. I hope we will regain the confidence of people in the profession to realise we’re on your side. We had a justice system to be proud of and we can again.”

However, at the recent APPG he did offer legal aid practitioners some hope as they prepared for the latest judicial review into duty contracts. “The position as regards the legal aid budget is at least conflicted at the moment,” said Slaughter. “It appears to be in freefall; that is to say that the savings that were supposed to be achieved in two years’ time have already been substantially achieved.”

While the shadow justice team have received a variety of suggestions regarding legal aid from the various bodies within the legal profession, all Slaughter could promise was an “open book review” of the budget should the Labour party come to power in May.

Legal aid not dead

While that is more than most lawyers could hope for, at least from the current coalition government, it is by no means a cause for celebration and many will fear that the status quo of cuts will remain the same under a future Labour administration. Is legal aid as we have come to know it dead?

Not so, according to the newly appointed shadow attorney general, Lord William Bach. Speaking exclusively to SJ after the AAPG, Bach says: “I would argue it is not dead. The future is clearly going to be different from the past. Any incoming government is going to be constrained, largely because of what this government has done and the current economic situation. But I would not agree that legal aid is dead, in fact I think that it is very much alive but it is in great danger at the current time, specifically in the criminal field. We’ve already seen what has been done in the civil field which has turned out to be something of a disaster.”

Karl Turner MP, Labour’s shadow solicitor general, concurs: “If you look at LASPO, as an example, there were swathes of civil legal aid taken out and a lot of well-regarded people, and some politicians, were making very valid points in those debates. The Lords did a fantastic job but, unfortunately, the government were completely blinkered by the desire to cut. But let us be absolutely honest, I’m not promising anything in terms of more money for legal aid. But it is obvious that the Labour party want to be constructive and work with the profession. We want to listen and work with its respected branches.”

Bach adds: “It is part of our duty, as shadow attorney and solicitor general, to make and keep close contact with the professions, the Bar, solicitors, and of course CILEx, in order that our party and hopefully our government will have a realistic relationship with the professions when we come in to power.”

The country’s potential legal officers in waiting are clear as to where to lay the blame for the government’s legal aid debacle. “Both of this government’s Lord Chancellors have been, in different ways, shocking,” says Bach. “Ken Clarke, who obviously understood how the criminal justice system worked, having been a barrister, had no idea about the value of social welfare law, and not much about family law, and so let legal aid be cut in a completely cavalier and disastrous way. I actually don’t think the present Lord Chancellor has much knowledge or desire to learn about civil or criminal justice.”

Constitutional reforms?

With that in mind, you might expect for both Bach and Turner to be of the opinion that the changes announced by the then prime minister, Tony Blair, in 2003, which abolished the historic role of the Lord Chancellor and the eventual implantation of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, was a mistake.

“I’ve thought a lot about this,” admits Bach, “I don’t think it was a mistake. The question now is whether or not the Lord Chancellor should be a lawyer. I don’t think it is necessary. There are lots of lay people who understand the principles of law extremely well, so I don’t think it was a mistake at all but this particular Lord Chancellor has been a disaster.”

The shadow solicitor general is in “absolute agreement” with his boss. “It is not necessary for the health secretary to be medically trained,” suggested Turner. “Sometimes it is better to be objective about things. However, I think Chris Grayling has been disastrous. I don’t know the man. I expect he is very intelligent, but he is not willing to consider and engage on things. He has a plan – not a very good plan in my opinion – so sadly he is not willing to consider things.”

Turner believes it is because of Grayling’s track record over the 12 months that there is now a question mark over whether or not the Lord Chancellor should be legally trained. “It is not as a result of him not being a lawyer, but in my opinion because he has just not listened and is not willing to consider and concede some of the pretty obvious points that have been made,” he adds.

Many of these ‘obvious points’ have come from the House of Lords on matters brought forth by the Lord Chancellor, which have been compulsive viewing for those with even a passing interest in judicial review or the justice secretary’s much maligned Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism (SARAH) Bill.

“The Lords have done an awful lot of work in certain areas,” continues Turner. “They have the advantage of experience and in being less partisan. That knowledge, in my opinion, ought to have been considered properly by the Lord Chancellor.”

A great irony

So if we are to accept that Grayling’s non-lawyer status has not been an impediment to his role as Lord Chancellor then would a different choice for the position have made a difference, even in spite of the harsh economic climate the government has gone to pains to remind the electorate and the legal profession about?

“It is probably one of the great ironies that if there hadn’t had to be a coalition, and there had been a Conservative majority government, presumably Dominic Grieve, who I have the greatest admiration, would have been Lord Chancellor,” suggests Bach. “However, they had to find a place for Vince Cable. Ken Clarke moved from his shadow position to being Lord Chancellor. If Dominic Grieve had been Lord Chancellor, I don’t know if the savage attack on civil legal aid would have occurred in quite the same way.”

The irony that the first choice alternate for the Lord Chancellorship is a well-respected lawyer does not go unnoticed. It is also unsurprising that the issue of another potential coalition government is a no-go area for all the main political parties, even if the majority of political commentators can see little chance of any one party obtaining a parliamentary majority come May. Perhaps the maneuvering that occurred to create space for the current Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has acted as a warning to Bach and Turner on the subject of a coalition partnership.

“I’m not going to be entertaining, in any way, any suggestion of coalition,” asserts the solicitor general. “Ed Miliband is campaigning, as well as each and every member of parliament and candidate of the Labour party, for a majority Labour government. I’m just not even tempted to entertain the idea of a coalition of any description actually. We are going to win the election. That is my priority and I expect that to be the priority of every member of parliament and activist of the Labour party.”

Rule of law

Speaking on the subject of the election, Bach believes that the topic of human rights will be a key issue, one way or another. “We are very proud it was our government that put in the Human Rights Act, which, I think, most people believe has been a great protector of everybody’s rights and not just those on the fringe. We will be defending the Human Rights Act with a great deal of passion.”

Bach continues by suggesting that anything else would be a step backwards. “It is vital, in this dangerous world we live in, that we have good security against the dangers there are but that human rights aren’t forgotten. What kind of society do we want to live in? There has got to be effective human rights and that is what the act does.”

In addition to campaigning in their own constituencies, Bach believes that as the shadow government’s legal officers they should reach out to the legal profession and try to convince them to vote Labour. “We are looking at all lawyers because what we share with them is a feeling that the rule of law has suffered considerably over the last five years. There is now much less access to justice than there was when we left office.

“We think there are an awful lot of lawyers out there, whether they be in the City or in the high street, in whatever they are doing, that feel in their bones the rule of law has been attacked by this government. We share that view which is why we will be hoping to persuade all lawyers to help us form a Labour government.”

All images copyright of Mary van der Luit Photography

This article was first published in Solicitors Journal on 16 January 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission