The start of each term in school is usually marked by a tangible sense of optimism, perhaps even hope over expectation for many, staff and pupils alike. And the atmosphere as the new parliament starts to get up and running is not dissimilar. Looking at the 2015 intake of MPs beginning to be sworn in it’s apparent that they (even the old hands) are eager to get back to the job they have been elected to do: make fair, just and sensible laws on our behalf and keep a check on the executive as it manages government.
There have been two other events of note this week that might offer a chance to look forwards as we begin this new term: the annual legal walk and the swearing in of the new Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove.
The legal walk, where about 9000 criminal justice professionals hacked round a 10km circuit in London on Monday evening takes place every year and raises money for legal advice charities. It brings together the great and the good, and probably one or two who don’t really fit into these categories, all in the cause of charitable giving. And it also serves to demonstrate that our judges, sometimes pilloried (wrongly) for being humourless and out of touch are actually rather good at the time honoured and sound strategy of combining humour and effectiveness: to see the President of the Supreme Court wearing a “Team Supreme” T shirt is something one may not be likely to see in many countries.
The walk is a visible reminder that we have a sophisticated legal system that relies on all those involved coming together to bring about the desired outcomes we all want to see: justice, fairness and transparency. Which leads on to the second event of the week that needs a little comment: the swearing in of the new Lord Chancellor.
Yesterday, Michael Gove, resplendent in his gold and black robes (but no full bottomed wig as he isn’t a lawyer) was sworn in as Lord Chancellor by Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. In his short and succinct speech the new LC said he had learned two things as a young journalist attending court for the first time: that no one should be deprived of liberty or property without due process of law; and the importance of freedom of speech.
As we know, there is great disquiet among not only legal professionals but all those who cherish the ideal of justice, fairness and transparency in our legal system (and society as a whole) about the cuts to legal aid and the impact they will have. No one is under any illusion that, when savings do have to be made, decisions will be easy or the results painless. But the new Lord Chancellor might want to think about the consequences of the cuts already made to the legal aid budget. Far more defendants are having to appear in court without legal representation, for example, and we need to ask what impact this will have on the ability to deliver a fair trial. We must also think about the impact it will have on victims and witnesses as an unintended consequence – the opportunity for defendants to add significant distress to a victim or witness, albeit unintentionally, by inappropriate cross examination is one that is likely to occur more frequently. If it does, not only will individuals be subjected to a re-victimisation and added distress but the system itself will suffer; confidence among the public will be undermined, the integrity of the system will be compromised and we may see more and more miscarriages of justice. If the latter occurs it will, inevitably, lead to an escalation of future costs to re-right a wrong that, given sufficient investment in the first place, would not have taken place.
So, Lord Chancellor, if you really want to see a justice system that lives up to the values we know you hold dear than perhaps now, at the start of the new term, is the right time to look again at legal aid and make a bold, and strategic investment that will pay dividends, in more than any financial sense, down the line.