It would be wrong for me not to record the “swearing in” ceremony yesterday at the High Court of Liz Truss, our first female Lord Chancellor. Wrong for a number of reasons.
Not only because she is demonstrably a tough hardworking woman, mother and wife now immersed in the law but because she also hails from Leeds, my own home city, and she grew up nearby in Roundhay near the beautiful Roundhay Park where my siblings and I went to play.
I used to live on Street Lane in Leeds, which runs past the entrance to the park. I attended Talbot Road School, the local primary school, from where I passed my 11-Plus exam (an age give away if ever there was one!). I was due to attend Roundhay High School as it then was, except my parents had saved up to send me to Leeds Girls High School instead.
Liz Truss went to Roundhay School, which by then had become a comprehensive school. It is where the Leeds Rhinos Foundation held a recent girls’ rugby league tournament, which was sponsored by Stowe Family Law.
You can’t miss Roundhay School when you visit Roundhay Park and the adjoining Soldiers’ Field. It stands there, an imposing presence on the horizon and has special memories for me because my parents latterly lived in the Park and my father attended Roundhay Boys school too. And when the entire area was being rejuvenated and it was all centred around the famous Edwardian “Oakwood Clock” which was in urgent need of repair, my husband and I helped with the funding. There is now a plaque on the clock dedicated to the memory of our parents and to the great City of Leeds.
So of course I would have a soft spot for Liz Truss, for those reasons alone even if she hadn’t specifically mentioned in her speech yesterday spending time at the Leeds Crown Court like I did too but which made me decide as a trainee, never ever to deal with criminal law.
Historically, the Lord Chancellor was Keeper of the Great Seal, and Minister to the King eventually becoming known as “Keeper of the King’s Conscience”. Churchmen dominated the Chancellorship until the 16th Century including Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More. But then, like now, a change took place so that thereafter laymen held office. These included Lord Shaftesbury but after him they all were lawyers. Tony Blair’s government can claim the dubious honour of irreparably altering this great office of state, arguably diminishing it, and the first non-lawyer of the new era Lord Chancellor, was Chris Grayling, someone I have already said a lot about, followed by Michael Gove and thereafter Liz Truss.
When a non-lawyer was first appointed to the office, and even before he had done anything to criticise him for, I thought it was a mistake. But I can understand why it happened. The justice system was going to be slashed to bits, legal aid would be removed and a non-lawyer presumably would do the Treasury’s work rather better than a modern day Sir Thomas More with a conscience. And so it proved. His replacement Michael Gove was generally held in much higher esteem, but politics and time stand still for no man: and now we have Ms Truss.
So what will she be like as Lord Chancellor?
It’s hard to imagine her having the same deep affection for the law and the justice system as those of us who are literally steeped in it, charged with doing our best throughout our adult lives for those who seek our help. But she did speak about upholding the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in her speech yesterday.
She spoke about the rule of law as fundamental to civilisation and a safeguard against “extremism oppression and dictatorship.” Furthermore she made it clear to an audience of the most senior judges in the country who knew it already and are unafraid to say so – that the separation of powers keeps the executive in check. That’s good to hear, coming from a politician and non-lawyer both for this country now and in the future. Compare and contrast the tragedies of unchecked dictatorship being played out in so many other countries.
She spoke of her pride in the English legal system, the best in the world because we have “an open and trusted legal system.” Amen to that too – as I’ve made the same points several times in my posts on London being the divorce capital of the world.
She also spoke about the need for as many people (not just men drawn from one very tiny pool) as is possible, to join the legal profession and to become members of the judiciary. She supports the reform and modernisation of the courts and tribunals which will be high on her agenda. That’s all good to hear too.
Overall she sees a modern, thriving legal system which needs more lawyers and judges and operates under the rule of law which shaped society in the past and will continue to do so in the present.
It wasn’t a long speech, it wasn’t boring, and it said a great deal. True it didn’t specifically mention access to justice by those who can’t afford lawyers but I’m pretty sure this must be on her mind. It wouldn’t otherwise be in keeping with the rest of what she said.
So…go on. Criticise me for being too partisan to a woman from Leeds. Maybe I am or maybe I’m not, but time will tell whether our first lady Lord Chancellor merits the confidence our Prime Minister clearly already has in her. She carries with her the best wishes of all of us who work within this tremendous justice system which is too, quite correctly, the envy of the world. I wish her well.