Policy differences worth debating

16 April 2015

LRG

Luke Robins-Grace, the Bar Council's Public Affairs and Communications Adviser 

Justice Ministers Lord Faulks and Simon Hughes, together with Shadow Justice Minister Andy Slaughter, faced an audience of legal professionals this week at a hustings event organised by JUSTICE, hosted by Allen & Overy and supported by the Bar Council, the Law Society and CILEx.   

All three faced a tough gig this week as they tried to win support for their party's positions on justice in front of a room full of lawyers whilst reminding them that further cuts are inevitable. 

But despite the narrowing effect of our financially straightened times, they showed that there are big policy differences on justice worth debating. 

Andy Slaughter promised Labour would cancel two tier contracting, reverse the restrictions on judicial review, widen access to legal aid for domestic violence victims and abolish the tribunal fee system. Reviewing access to justice more broadly is a longer term objective. This was all mother-hood and apple pie, even if the slices were thinner than we would have liked. He also reminded us that Kenneth Clarke QC had recently queried the idea that poor people should receive tax-payer's money for legal representation. 

Simon Hughes must have been biting his tongue for most the evening, as his party's manifesto (which, it turns out, devoted an entire page to access to justice) had not yet been published. Thus stymied, he sketched a vision of justice as moving away from its adversarial framework but said in the meantime that access to justice should be improved. He warned that lawyers will need to do a lot more pro-bono work. Leaving us with a tantalising behind the scenes glimpse of the coalition justice team in action, he told us what many may have long suspected. "The current secretary of state," he said, "and at least some of my colleagues don't have the same view as I do of the benefits of the independence of the judiciary." Some as high as Number 10, he said, thought it a "blessed nuisance." 

Lord Faulks began by warning Andy Slaughter that he will not be such a fan of judicial review if Labour are elected. As for legal aid, he hoped it would not be reduced by a Conservative Government in scope, eligibility or remuneration. On court fees he said the 'middle wedge' of people impacted by the increase should be looked at, expressing particular concern over personal injury and clinical negligence. 

On the Human Rights Act Lord Faulks criticised the Labour law for not bringing our rights home, but instead "subcontracting" them to Strasbourg. Backed up by Simon Hughes, Andy Slaughter described the Conservative plan as "shocking". How to assert the sovereignty of the UK Supreme Court without withdrawing from the convention is the question on every constitutional and human rights lawyer's mind. The Conservative plans may not be easy to implement, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats will nevertheless have a job to do in winning the argument. A complexity of treaties and conventions may well be a tougher to sell than a British Bill of Rights. 

If Sky News' Afua Hirsch, who chaired the event, was worried the discussion would reveal only bland similarities between the parties, the result showed it was a debate well worth having.