The new Lord Chancellor said legal aid allowed lawyers to wallpaper their offices with taxpayer’s money. Has his longed for spring clean finally arrived?

Since the announcement that he was to become the second consecutive non-lawyer secretary of state for justice, lawyers and journalists have been clamouring to speculate on the direction in which Michael Gove will take the ‘ancient’ office of Lord Chancellor.

Yet to date the new justice secretary has remained tight-lipped as he gets to grips with the inner workings of 102 Petty France. Instead, the legal profession has relied on a trickle of information to give some insight into what it might expect from the holder of the oldest surviving British ministerial office.

Last week the Spectator reported on the contents of a leaked address given by Gove to civil servants at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). The publication’s political editor, James Forsyth, wrote that Gove was conscious of the challenges he may face when dealing with the legal profession and had, therefore, began his speech accordingly.

‘It’s a heavy responsibility to be in public service,’ Gove allegedly said, ‘in particular a heavy responsibility to be a government minister, but perhaps one of the heaviest responsibilities of all is to be responsible for our justice system and upholding the rule of law; because it’s upon the rule of law that civilisation depends. It’s the rule of law that protects the weak and the vulnerable from oppression.

‘It’s the rule of law that safeguards the rights and the liberties of every individual. It’s the rule of law that allows business to proceed, individuals to become prosperous and homes to be secure.’

That snippet, however, has not been enough to sate the appetites of lawyers still reeling from the after effects of Gove’s predecessor, Chris Grayling. But this week provided them with a chance to hear directly from the horse’s mouth as Gove was sworn-in as Lord Chancellor at a ceremony in London.

The former education secretary was welcomed to his new role by such judicial luminaries as the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, at the Royal Courts of Justice. By all accounts, court four was packed to the rafters with Supreme Court judges, Lord Justices, and High Court judges all in attendance, as is the tradition.

Having completed his oath of allegiance to respect the rule of law, defend the independence of the judiciary, and discharge his duty to provide resources to support the courts, Gove then, in an apparently well-received off-the-cuff speech, praised the adversarial system of justice as ‘one of the surest safeguards of liberty’ and remarked that ‘it must be a sorry nation indeed in which judges themselves agree with politicians 100 per cent of the time’.

Following his address, the justice secretary was welcomed by the various facets of the legal profession. The Law Society’s vice president, Jonathan Smithers, complimented Gove on hisreputation for fairness and as being a ‘forward thinker’.

While making reference to the findings from the House of Lords Select Committee into the office of Lord Chancellor, the chairman of the Bar, Alistair MacDonald QC, said he was confident that, ‘in the person of Mr Gove, we have someone who eminently fulfils the requirements identified by the Constitution Committee and we look forward very much to working with the new Lord Chancellor’.

However, lying beneath the surface of these polite remarks, presented on behalf of a nervous profession by its leaders, is a yearning to know which end of the Lord Chancellor spectrum Gove intends to sit while in office; will he be another Saint Thomas Becket, or another Christopher Grayling?

To answer that question we must turn back to Gove’s time as a journalist. Writing for the Times newspaper in 1999, the former Conservative chief whip wrote in gushing praise of Lord Irvine of Lairg, describing him as ‘an orchid in the buttonhole of a subfusc government’ as well as being Tony Blair’s ‘finest conservative’.

Gove applauded Lord Irvine’s dogged determination to push through the Access to Justice Act 1999, then the biggest shake-up in the legal aid system since the implementation of the Legal Advice and Assistance Act in 1949. Yet Irvine’s plans were, at the time, heavily criticised by the Law Society and its ‘liberal allies’.

‘The solicitors’ trade union, as the Law Society is careful never to call itself, is leading the fight,’ he wrote. ‘In an advertising campaign, paid for by all of us through taxes which go on legal aid and the fees accumulated by conveyancing, the Law Society has sought to undermine the Lord Chancellor’s reforms. The society protests that Lord Irvine’s legislation, by capping the amount spent on legal aid, will deny justice to the deserving.’

Instead, Gove went on to argue that the real impediment to justice was ‘the high level of legal fees’.

Concluding, the then columnist wrote: ‘Because legal aid spending has been uncapped, lawyers have taken up all manner of unsuitable cases. Solicitors have known that they have, in the taxpayer, a supporter of actions with bottomless pockets. The untrammelled growth of legal aid, which the Law Society’s members have so enjoyed, has been a conspiracy against the public for too long.

‘Legal aid has allowed the Law Society’s members to wallpaper their offices with taxpayer’s money for years. The time has come for a spring clean.’

Does Gove stand by this 16-year-old diatribe on legal aid lawyers?

This blog post was first published in Solicitors Journal on 20 May 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission

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