The public and the profession should not accept the MoJ’s spin-doctoring which sees them sitting on bad news until post-election
Anyone who has had dealings with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) will be well aware that the age of spin-doctoring is far from dead and buried. However, events have come to light in recent days that suggest the government ministry, or at the very least the people running it, are not fit to run the administration of justice in this country.
Over the weekend it was reported that the business secretary, Vince Cable had privately clashed with the Lord Chancellor, that almost all lawyers love to hate, Chris Grayling, over a substantial drop in the number of sexual discrimination cases being heard in employment tribunals, following the introduction of fees.
The number of claims brought before the Employment Tribunal has plunged for consecutive quarters and, according to the Guardian, Cable has ordered his department to investigate whether the fees are proving a barrier to justice. This comes after requests for a review of the fee scheme were repeatedly ignored by the justice secretary and the MoJ.
Grayling has often been criticised for ignoring the opinions of the legal profession when ushering in divisive reforms to the justice system, but to blatantly ignore a cabinet colleague after assurances that a review would come a year after implementation of the fees policy, suggests a complete disregard for anything but his own ideology.
Of course, Cable, and his Liberal Democrat colleagues, should not escape without criticism. After all, it was they who agreed with the contentious policy in the first place, as they did with numerous others. Let us not forget that not a single Lib Dem opposed the government’s Criminal Justice and Courts Bill containing the controversial provisions on the limiting of judicial review claims.
As telling as Grayling’s refusal to even acknowledge there may be something rotten in the employment tribunals, Cable’s leaks to the press smack of desperation in the lead up to a general election that many expect to be devastating for his party.
But allegations that suggest the chancellor has been ‘sitting on’ bad news until after the May election are not been confined to the employment tribunals. Ian Dunt reports on Politics.co.uk this week that the MoJ are purposefully restricting the release of evidence concerning the impact of legal aid cuts, so as to avoid embarrassment before we all head off to the ballot box.
The shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, has been waiting 16 weeks for an answer to what should be fairly straightforward question: how many litigants in person are clogging up the court system as a result of government cuts to legal aid? Khan has now written to justice minister Shailesh Vara asking why he has yet to receive an answer.
No hard data exists to answer this question outside of the MoJ, although anecdotally some judges and barristers suggest that half of all cases involve at least one party being unrepresented, while the chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge, recently said there has been a 30 per cent rise in the number of family court cases in which both parties were litigants in person.
What we know however that 77 per cent of judges view litigants in person as one of the main challenges for the judiciary, along with a reduction in support staff, fiscal constraints and a loss of judicial independence. Of even more concern was the news that only 2 per cent of judges felt valued by the government. Further, one in five civil servants apparently want to quit the Legal Aid Agency. This should all make for uncomfortable reading for Grayling. Not that we ever hear him say so.
The Great British public are used to government spin, perhaps so much so that we have become immune to it. Even as a journalist, it has come to the point where I take bets with myself as to how the ministry will decide to spin a story each week.
Even before contacting the MoJ, I can almost type out word-for-word its response to a request for comment. I have lost count of the number of times it begins with mention of ‘the deficit’, ‘strained economic times’, ‘taxpayers’, and ‘resources are not limitless’.
What the current incumbents of Petty France don’t seem to realise is that access to justice should not be limited in any way. Yet with Grayling’s reforms we now have a justice system that no longer works for the public. No amount of spin will lead to a white wash of this government’s failings in that regard. We all know it and it is time Grayling bit the bullet and showed us just how good a non-lawyer Lord Chancellor he really is.
This blog post was first published on Solicitors Journal on 17 February 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission