‘For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens “as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone”.’
Those words by the prime minister, David Cameron, will certainly have sent chills down the spines of many lawyers wondering if it hints at the shape of things to come.
The last week has seen a new team take shape at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), but it is not just within the ministry’s halls that practitioners may look to predict what Conservative justice policy could look like over the next five years.
As was widely reported, the Lord Chancellor that almost all lawyers love to hate, Chris Grayling, had his security pass to 102 Petty France revoked during the government reshuffle. While legal practitioners have breathed a sigh of relief at seeing the back of ‘Failing Grayling’, many have expressed a sense of foreboding at seeing Conservative chief whip Michael Gove take his place.
It might have been expected that the new justice secretary would pick up where his predecessor left off on criminal legal aid reform, however, it seems the government has bigger fish to fry by aiming its sights squarely at Labour’s ‘hated’ Human Rights Act (HRA) and those dastardly Strasbourg judges.
In a clear sign that repealing the HRA is a top priority, Gove has been joined at the MoJ by junior minister Dominic Raab, who has often criticised the interpretation of human rights by the courts, specifically – every tabloid’s favourite – article 8’s right to a private and family life.
Another junior minister joining the new look justice team is Caroline Dinenage. It’s reported the MP for Gosport will be splitting her time between the MoJ and the Department for Education where she is the new minister for equalities. Dinenage’s appointment certainly sends a mixed message over equality law when you consider she voted against gay marriage and said that the state had ‘no right’ to redefine marriage.
Of course, Dinenage was not alone in rebelling against the government on gay marriage. She was joined by none other than the attorney general Jeremy Wright QC, and the new employment minister Priti Patel. The MP for Witham has previously criticised the criminal justice system for failing the country with high reoffending rates. Her solution was to bring back the death penalty. Was she was influenced by the writings of a certain former journalist and now Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove?
In another announcement, the business secretary Sajid Javid promised to tighten the laws on industrial action by demanding a 50 per cent turnout in strike ballots. According to Javid, this would ensure unions have a mandate to strike. I trust the irony that only 37 per cent of the those that voted did so for the Conservatives – which apparently gives Cameron’s government a mandate to do what it wants – is not lost on anyone.
But fear ye not legal guardians, for the government has good news for you. Speaking on BBC Radio 4 about the raft of new anti-extremist measures unveiled by the prime minister (see scary quote above), the home secretary Theresa May said that democracy, tolerance, and the rule of law were ‘British values’.
Though May struggled to define or expand on what ‘British values’ the proposals would protect, the recent ministerial appointments suggest the government – and by extension the Great British Public – values inequality, restrictions on rights and liberties, and a return of cruel and unusual punishment.
If one thing is for sure, it is that UK lawyers are going to be busy over the next five years.
This blog post was first published in Solicitors Journal on 15 May 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission