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Legal Action Group promotes equal access to justice as a fundamental democratic right. LAG works with lawyers and advisers to improve standards and knowledge of social welfare, family and criminal law among practitioners, by publishing legal handbooks and its monthly magazine, Legal Action, and by providing training and events for lawyers and advisers.
Like a few of you, I’ve been weighing up the events of last week and their likely impact on legal and access to justice policy.
Firstly, there is a chance that another general election might be on the cards before many MPs, especially in the government ranks, might want. The Good Friday agreement commits both the UK and Irish governments to demonstrate ‘rigorous impartiality’ in their dealings with the different political traditions in Northern Ireland. It’s difficult to see how a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will not either be a direct breach of the agreement or, at least, the spirit of it. So, the first question is: will the government’s pact with the DUP unravel in the courts? We will know better about the chances of this happening once the details emerge of what has been agreed between the two parties to get the Queen’s speech passed.
As far as justice policy goes, Liz Truss made mistakes, though not on the scale that Grayling managed. Her biggest error was losing the confidence of the judiciary because she failed to defend the Supreme Court judges promptly enough against attacks from the press over the article 50 case. Her replacement as lord chancellor, David Lidington, needs to appreciate that his first duty is to defend the rule of law and this often involves suppressing political instincts. In other words, he should put constitutional principle before chasing favourable headlines (indeed, it might be beneficial if all cabinet members were required to do so).
The Prisons and Courts Bill, which included provisions to establish online courts and virtual hearings, was abandoned due to the general election. I’m pretty sure it will return in an altered form, but who knows in these political febrile times. I believe the prisons and court reform provisions in the bill had broad cross-party support, though I’d add a couple of caveats to that statement.
Security and penal policy, perhaps understandably, is something of an obsession for the DUP. They might balk at some of the rhetoric around rehabilitation as opposed to punishment in the original bill. We are unlikely to get many pointers from the Queen’s speech on whether they have influenced a rehashed bill. A forensic analysis of the original compared to the text of any new bill will be required to detect the DUP’s policy fingerprints.
The government’s flimsy parliamentary majority means, despite it being a manifesto commitment, it might have drop plans to change the rules around compensation for whiplash. If the proposal makes it to the draft bill, expect some heavy lobbying by interest groups on both sides of the argument at the committee stage.
A couple of thoughts about Jeremy Corbyn. He has, though he probably would not like the comparison, turned out to be a bit of a Tony Blair on the campaign trail. Like Blair, he is a Heineken politician: he reaches parts of the electorate other politicians don’t (Labour’s energising of the youth vote is one of the main stories of this election). Also, like Blair, Corbyn – in contrast to May – has proved himself to be an adept TV performer with an unflustered and disarming style (the Mr Zen persona seems to connect with viewers).
Due to his success in increasing Labour’s vote, Corbyn will be around for some time. In the context of legal aid policy this is important. As Lord Bach, the former legal aid minister, has said: ‘Jeremy really does get legal aid.’ Bach heads a commission, established by the Labour leader, on legal aid that published an interim report last year. I’d anticipate Labour will be putting increasing pressure on the government over the lack of advice in family and DV cases, as well as over the need generally for early advice in civil cases.