We have a new Lord |Chancellor/Secretary of State for Justice. Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP was appointed recently as part of the new Theresa May Cabinet.
I have absolutely no problem with a woman as Lord Chancellor (and yes, even though she is a woman she is Lord Chancellor). However, yet again, for the third time in a row, we have a non-lawyer filling one of the great legal posts of State.
She has already said that she wishes to reform prisons-don’t they always?-and to reform Courts-don’t they always?-but what Liz Truss really needs to do is to ignore the bureaucrats and consultants and advisers that populate the MoJ and talk to people who work in prisons, in probation, in the courts, at CPS and in private practice.
Too much reform of “Justice” has been piecemeal and politically motivated. There needs to be a consensus as to what Justice looks like. A definition of key reform terminology would also help eg “efficiency”. Too often the term “efficiency” is used to mean “reduction in resources” which, of course, does not necessarily help improve efficiency. It would help if a vision of the Justice system could be created in open dialogue with those at the coal-face and then the resources found to deliver that vision. Justice should be funded to the extent that the system requires to deliver Justice. Without proper definitions of key terms no Lord Chancellor can guarantee that the system over which they preside delivers Justice.
The LAA has announced a new contract for 2017. There will be a totally unnecessary non-competitive tendering process (which costs more money than is necessary for the award of a legal aid contract). Most legal aid fees are fixed fees. There is no need for the Legal Aid Agency at all. Legal aid could be granted by the Courts/Tribunals and any bills requiring assessment could be assessed by the Courts/Tribunals.
One new clause appearing for the first time in the new contract is one which prohibits providers from embarrassing the Legal Aid Agency. What this might be used for is to prevent criticism of the Legal Aid Agency. However my guess is that it is a way to address the issue of those Solicitors who share fees with clients, who make payments to third parties for work and who use non-duty solicitors to intercept clients at court and represent them when the client would, ordinarily, be represented by the Duty. It will be interesting to see what happens if the LAA tries to argue that open criticism of how it undertakes its role as commissioner of public-funded legal services causes it embarrassment such that the critic should lose his right to undertake legal aid work.
What would be much more helpful would be if those in charge at the LAA stopped behaving like poodles and instead spoke openly about how bad the Justice system is due to lack of resources and the affect this has on people.