Michael Gove gave his first speech today in his role as Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor. Speaking at the Legatum Institute, Mr Gove set out some big picture proposals, giving an indication of his direction of travel for the coming months/years.
While there was little in terms of specific policy detail, his speech did offer some insight into his vision both for the legal system and for his approach to his role. Here are few of my take-aways:
1) A change of tone. I’ve long been a fan of Mr Gove. I am a supporter of his education reforms. However, much of his good work as Education Secretary was overshadowed by the tone and manner in which he approached his role. His adversarial approach saw him do battle with a whole host of established figures within the education system. I’m sure that much of this was unavoidable given the reforms he was championing but it seemed at times he deliberately sought-out a fight and relished the confrontation. His speech today was of a very different tone indicating that he would not be replicating his former approach. He cited and praised numerous senior legal professionals highlighted the good working relationship he has with them.
2) A Robin Hood justice system? Several times during his speech, Gove hinted that he would like to see the wealthiest legal firms ‘contribute’ more than they currently do, in order to help the poorest in society have better access to justice. Gove was careful not to get drawn into the specifics but hinted at a light-touch solution – such as encouraging an increase in pro bono work done by the big firms – rather than heavy-handed legislation or taxation that would compel them to do so. This is undoubtedly a worthy ambition…making it work (including getting buy-in from the big law firms) will be very tricky.
3) Working with – not against – the system. Several times Mr Gove stressed that he would be working with the legal profession rather than against it. He stated that during his first few weeks in the role he has felt supported by the profession and will aim to be guided by it. He stressed his good relationship with the Lord Chief Justice, as well as his warmness to the proposals within Lord Leveson’s Review of Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings.
It’s early days but it seems like Gove is keen to embrace reforms that are coming from – and are supported by – the legal profession (very different to the head-on battles that characterised his time in the dept. of Education). In answer to a question about the existence of a “blob” within the legal system (followers of Mr Gove’s earlier work will be familiar with this term!) he stated that he has not identified one in the legal profession…yet!
4) Court closures. Gove was clear that some courts will have to close. What will the money saved be used for: simply absorbed into the wider departmental cuts or re-invested back into the legal system…? Again, refusing to be drawn on specifics, Gove stated that various options are on the table, although he did say that the Treasury is sympathetic to his case for re-investment into the system rather than straight cost-cutting.
Speaking with lawyers, think-tankers, and journalists after the speech I noted two common themes: first, positivity about the themes of the speech. Second, scepticism about how Mr Gove plans achieve it all. And that’s the whole ball game. It’s one thing to set out what you want to happen, it’s quite another to deliver it. Time will tell whether he can. I’m sure an anxious legal profession is watching and waiting.
The full text of the speech is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/what-does-a-one-nation-justice-policy-look-like