Yes, that was my reaction, and probably also the reaction of most, to the news on Monday that David Gauke MP has been appointed the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, replacing David Lidington MP.
Mr Gauke is the sixth Lord Chancellor in six years and, remarkably, the fourth since May 2015, with the average term of the last three incumbents being only about ten months. Within minutes of his appointment lawyers on Twitter were remarking that this level of turnover illustrates the government’s lack of respect for the office, and for the legal system generally. I don’t know if that is true, but it would be surprising if it were, as I always understood that the Conservative Party prided itself in being the party of ‘law and order’.
But Mr Gauke is at least a lawyer, the first to hold the office since Ken Clarke in 2012. The unhappy appointment of Chris Grayling to succeed Mr Clarke was the first time the post had been given to a non-lawyer for some 440 years. However, there is something novel about Mr Gauke’s ‘lawyership’: he is a solicitor, not a barrister. In fact, he is the first solicitor to hold the post. He studied law at Oxford, then took his law finals at my old alma mater Chester College of Law, before being admitted as a solicitor in 1997. He subsequently spent six years working for a corporate law firm in the City, leaving in 2005 when he became an MP. I’m not sure how useful that background will be for his new job, but it must surely be an advantage that he at least has some knowledge of, and experience in, the law.
So what of his record as an MP, in relation to matters relevant to his new position? Well, not that promising, actually. The website TheyWorkForYou tells us that he generally voted for restricting the scope of legal aid, including voting in 2012 for the removal of legal aid from most private law family cases by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (‘LASPO’). He also generally voted against laws to promote equality and human rights, including voting in favour of repealing the Human Rights Act 1998. It is not all bad news though: Mr Gauke consistently voted in favour of same sex marriage.
What else can be said about our new Lord Chancellor? Well, his response to his appointment was positive. He tweeted:
A huge honour to be appointed Secretary of State @MoJGovUK.
And many thanks to the dedicated people at @DWP for all their help & support.
— David Gauke (@DavidGauke) January 8, 2018
He is also quoted as saying:
“Justice is the cornerstone of our democracy and a key part of a fairer society. That is why I am delighted to be taking up the position of secretary of state for justice and the vital role of Lord Chancellor. I am looking forward to meeting experts and front-line staff to drive the crucial work started by my predecessors, to reform our prisons and courts, uphold the rule of law, and promote our world-leading legal services.”
Of course, it’s one thing to talk the talk, it is quite another to walk the walk. Despite these fine words, expect more cost-cutting measures during the short time that Mr Gauke is likely to be in office. Also do not expect any reinstatement of legal aid. The office may change hands regularly, but the policies change little.
In fact, I’m not sure that the rapid turnover of the once-great office of Lord Chancellor is that important. These days it is about policies, not people. That this is so is largely due to those words “once great”. The office was emasculated by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Prior to that, the Lord Chancellor also acted as Speaker of the House of Lords, headed the judiciary and was the senior judge of the House of Lords in its judicial capacity. However, under the Act the Lord Chancellor ceased to be the Speaker of the Lords, was replaced by the Lord Chief Justice as head of the judiciary, and may no longer sit as a judge (hence we no longer have the need for Lord Chancellors with legal qualifications). In other words, the Lord Chancellor today is just another government minion, not a true representative and champion of the legal system. He or she may say nice things about the system, but the only thing that matters is what the government thinks.