Just six weeks into his term, and with no prior legal training or experience, the new Lord Chancellor Michael Gove has outlined in a speech (‘What does a one nation justice policy look like?’) what he thinks must be done to reform our justice system. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by this – Mr Gove has always been one of those politicians eager to be ‘doing something’, although how many in the education system think that what he did at the Department for Education actually made things better is another matter.
Mr Gove has certainly witnessed a lot in those six short weeks, including seeing barristers struggle to explain delays, seeing them grapple with “massive bundles”, watching “judges question advocates about the most basic procedural preliminaries in what should be straightforward cases” and hearing “too many accounts of cases derailed by the late arrival of prisoners, broken video links or missing paperwork.” He has clearly been busy, although one has to wonder whether these experiences, profound as they may be, provide a sufficient basis for tearing down the old justice system and building anew. Still, he is convinced that the old system is failing our citizens. Badly.
With the gall that only a politician could muster, Mr Gove pointed out that there is a “dangerous inequality” within our justice system between the wealthy on the one hand and everyone else on the other, failing to mention that that inequality was seriously exacerbated by the legal aid cuts implemented by the last government, of which he was a member. Yes, he did mention those cuts later in his speech, and made no apology for them, saying only that the changes “need to be judged fairly”. Having said that, he was clearly aware of the need to provide more help for those who cannot afford legal help, by suggesting that “the most successful in the legal profession” provide more of their time pro bono. Hardly a novel idea, and not something that will do much to fill the gaping hole left by the cuts.
Much of the speech was about the criminal justice system, and there was therefore little about family justice. There were, however, these two paragraphs:
“Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division, envisages that the complex, sometimes fraught and certainly disorientating process of applying for probate, or dealing with family separation or divorce could be far more quickly and sensitively handled. By using plain English rather than legalese, replacing paper forms with simple questions online, and automating much of the administrative process, many issues could be resolved far more quickly, often without the involvement of administrators or the judiciary.
“That would free the time of Sir James and his colleagues for the most vital work of the Family Court – deciding whether it is in the best interests of children, who have suffered neglect or abuse, to remain with their birth families or to be placed in the care of foster or adoptive parents.”
All of which suggests to me that Mr Gove is happy with the President’s vision and therefore does not, yet at least, have any designs of his own upon our family justice system. If this is true it will no doubt come as a relief to many. Of course, Mr Gove’s position may change if at any point he decides that the reforming efforts of our President are not sufficient to meet the requirements of “One Nation”.
Another hopeful sign for us family lawyers is that when Mr Gove listed future speeches he intends to make, there was no mention of anything to do with the family justice system.
For the moment, at least, we can breathe easily.
The full text of the speech can be read here.