Smooth-talking Gove charms lawyers over legal aid reforms and rule of law

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By Jonathan Ames on

Social media commentators almost fall in love with new Justice Secretary, primarily because he’s not Chris Grayling


The legal profession learnt an important lesson about Michael Gove today. While his immediate predecessor, Chris Grayling, was a head-banging bruiser, Gove is a far more intellectual, sophisticated, subtle charmer.

Many lawyers gratefully gobbled up Gove’s early morning speech today, his first as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor since taking office after last month’s surprise general election victory for the Conservatives.

So used to having Grayling club them around the head and shoulders, some legal profession commentators seemed positively wooed by the former Times newspaper leader writer.

Blackstone Chambers’ Dinah Rose QC — who has acted for the Law Society in judicial review challenges to legal aid reforms and criticised the last government’s cuts — was one lawyer that went a bit weak at the knees when Gove purred this morning.

Likewise, law Twitteratai firebrand David Allen Green — a media specialist solicitor at London firm Preiskel & Co and a long-standing Grayling critic — was also partially sympathetic, albeit in the guise of his alter-ego, Jack of Kent.

Even Keir Starmer — the former Director of Public Prosecutions and recently elected Labour MP — seemed prepared to stand Gove a pint down the local.

What’s more, the Justice Secretary had the establishment legal profession press wrapped round his finger. This hack from the Law Gazette appeared on the verge of asking Gove to join in a game of Saturday park footie.

In the real world outside the social media bubble, Bar Council Chairman Alistair MacDonald QC, also enthused. “It is very encouraging”, said the New Park Court chambers man.

Macdonald continued:

That [the Justice Secretary] has recognised the importance of the rule of law as the most precious asset of a civilised society and the importance of a healthy independent bar to ensure high quality advocacy. In addition, the secretary of state has emphasised the importance of legal aid as a vital element in a fair justice system.

What has this freshly minted Ministry of Justice Svengali said to win such plaudits, whereas his predecessor was vilified to the point that protestors crafted a grotesque papier-mâché Grayling head that was paraded around the streets of London town?

Here’s a selection of honey-coated quotes from Gove’s speech this morning:

Making the case for the rule of law as an institution which safeguards progressive values is my mission.

The rule of law is the most precious asset of any civilised society. It is the rule of law which protects the weak from the assault of the strong; which safeguards the private property on which all prosperity depends; which makes sure that when those who hold power abuse it, they can be checked; which protects family life and personal relations from coercion and aggression; which underpins the free speech on which all progress — scientific and cultural — depends; and which guarantees the essential liberty that allows us all as individuals to flourish.

Fine words, but what about specifics? Grayling continued a process — which, to be fair, was initiated by the preceding Labour government — of slashing legal aid. What’s Mellow Michael’s view?

Legal aid is a vital element in any fair justice system. There is a responsibility on government to make sure that those in the greatest hardship — at times of real need — are provided with the resources to secure access to justice. Change was required to save money — no minister in this government can avoid thinking hard about how to deal with the massive deficit. But I am also committed to making sure that we protect access to justice for everyone accused of a crime, and safeguard and improve the quality of the legal advice and advocacy in our criminal courts.

And then Gove continued with his campaign of the last fortnight of batting eyelashes at the bar.

I am particularly keen to make sure that the highest quality advocates are instructed in all cases, and have set in train immediate work to address the problems described in Sir Bill Jeffrey’s report on criminal advocacy last year.

He went on:

And I want to make sure that once these changes to criminal legal aid are in place, we will monitor their effects to make sure that justice and fairness are served. That is why we will review the impact of these changes both on the quality of advocacy and access to justice and why I am determined to do everything I can to protect and enhance both.

Is Gove the progressive, thinking lawyer’s bit of crumpet? Thousands of teachers across the land would wryly warn lawyers not to be seduced by the man they battled with during his time as Education Secretary.

And indeed, just how committed is he to liberal principles of the rule of law? This morning’s speech was delivered at the Legatum Institute in London, about which Gove waxed lyrical before getting stuck into the meat of his message.

Legatum is a Dubai-based private investment business, which, in addition to sponsoring the London institute, also finances the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Undoubtedly, those behind Legatum have the best of intentions. But any association with the potentates running the United Arab Emirates — where the rule of law has a considerably different meaning — raises questions.

Ultimately, British lawyers are likely to continue to be wary of the company Gove keeps — and more importantly to measure his smooth words against actual deeds.

Read Gove’s speech in full below:

Gove speech in full

Image via @JoshuaRozenberg