Bob Neill MP also discusses challenges facing legal profession and shares views on Brexit
“Brexit does not need to be as bad as people think it’s going to be.”
These are the words of Bob Neill, who chairs one of the crucial stakeholders hoping to make sure this is the case: the Justice Committee.
A House of Commons Select Committee made up of eleven MPs from various parties, Neill and colleagues have been working hard running inquiries into the impact of Brexit on the profession and legal services.
The overall aim is to strengthen the government’s hand in negotiations and mitigate the potential harm our withdrawal could cause. The committee is poised to give recommendations on this in March when it’ll be pushing the government on mutual recognition of professional qualifications. If accepted, this will ensure EU lawyers can practice here and UK lawyers in the EU.
Despite his Brexit focus, Neill, like many other Conservatives, voted to remain in the EU on 23 June. He describes the referendum result as a “shame” and admits he felt “personally sad” when his side lost.
But that doesn’t mean he’s interested in second referendums. He accepts the result and is determined to make a success of it, partly through his Justice Committee work. “Now isn’t the time to fight yesterday’s battles,” he reflects.
Adopting a make-do attitude like this is pivotal to being successful in politics. MPs must accept that they will not win every vote, much in the same way as barristers must accept they will not win every case.
Neill has experience of both: now the MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, he is a former criminal barrister at 2 Bedford Row. Though he has no plans to return to practice, he is a bencher in Middle Temple and takes an active interest in law and legal affairs. Being chairman of the Justice Committee is, in this sense, Neill’s “dream job”.
With his lawyer’s hat on, then, Neill talks to Legal Cheek about the recent Supreme Court Brexit litigation, Miller, favourably, even though it was the government that lost the case. He tells us:
I’m really not surprised by the result. On balance, I think the justices came to the right decision.
But perhaps more interesting than the Brexit legal challenge itself is the fall-out from it. In the hours following the High Court’s decision, the media launched a no holds barred assault on the judiciary, with one publication referring to the three judges who sat on the case as “enemies of the people”.
While the profession raged, Justice Secretary Liz Truss did very little, and subsequently came under fire for failing to defend the judiciary against these attacks. One of these vocal Truss critics was Neill himself. He recalls:
I’ve been openly critical of the fact she should’ve spoken more robustly following the media attacks after the case.
Truss has recently stepped up to defend herself against this backlash, telling Andrew Marr: “I will not criticise and say to the free press what they should write in their headlines”. On this, Neill says:
No-one was asking her to tell newspapers how and what to write. Newspapers are more than allowed to say they think the High Court or the Supreme Court made the wrong decision. The way in which you criticise is very important; it’s uncivilised for the newspapers to run ‘enemies of the people’ headlines. It’s very legitimate for her to point out that there are different, more fair ways to criticise.
Overall, however, Neill seems generally pleased with Truss and her performance as Justice Secretary so far. She was more assertive in her defence of the judiciary at the case’s Supreme Court stage, she seems genuinely interested in more diversity and is keeping the agenda set by her predecessor Michael Gove. “She’s quietly steering the ship,” he thinks.
While Neill appears confident in Truss and the work she’s doing, he knows not all is well with the legal profession as a whole at the moment, particularly at the publicly funded end of it.
He’s quick to lambast the ferocity of recent legal aid cuts and, interestingly, questions whether they have saved any money at all. This is because, he says, litigants-in-person make their way through the court system far slower than those aided by expert lawyers. This increases the cost of cases to the courts — and to the justice system. “Very counterproductive,” he notes.
Like many others, Neill is hopeful this direction of travel may change. He concludes:
The government gets the sense this just isn’t sustainable. We have taken out as much as we can, we cannot take out anymore.
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