Gove decoded: Is the new justice secretary serious about fixing the justice system?
After six weeks Michael Gove has emerged from studying the state of the justice system and issued his opening proclamation. He'll have been pleased by the reception. Despite there being very little meat on the bones, it has won considerable press attention with big write-ups in the major papers.
Partly that's due to good timing. We're not quite in silly season, but political news from Westminster is growing increasingly scarce and news desks are desperate to move on from Greece and the Eurozone. But the coverage dedicated to this speech is partly a testament to Gove himself. He's known as a fighter. So even though there is more rhetoric than policy in this speech, it's being treated as a preview of the battle with the legal industry which Gove will invariably end up in. The newspapers today are like those kids at school who would notify everyone in the playground of a fight when two boys looked like they were about to go at it. "Fight! Fight! Read all about it"
Before the fight starts – as, knowing how Gove operates, it invariably will – it's worth considering what it's about. But looking at today's speech you are struck by the disconnect between the strength of its rhetoric and the weakness of its policy solutions.
Here are the key extracts:
"There are two nations in our justice system at present. On the one hand, the wealthy, international class who can choose to settle cases in London with the gold standard of British justice. And then everyone else, who has to put up with a creaking, outdated system to see justice done in their own lives.
"The people who are let down most badly by our justice system are those who must take part in it through no fault or desire of their own: victims and witnesses of crime, and children who have been neglected.”
"I have seen barristers struggle to explain why a young woman who had the courage to press a rape charge should have had to wait nearly two years before her case was heard … I have heard too many accounts of cases derailed by the late arrival of prisoners, broken video links or missing paperwork.
“The waste and inefficiency inherent in such a system are obvious. But perhaps even more unforgivable is the human cost. It is the poorest in our society who are disproportionately the victims of crime, and who find themselves at the mercy of this creaking and dysfunctional system. "
This is all good stuff. It's refreshing to see a justice secretary recognise the problems in the justice system, rather than bury their head in the sand and insist endlessly that everything is fine. To that extent, today's speech can be seen as a tacit rebuke of Grayling. Healing starts with acceptance and Gove evidently accepts that there are major problems with the justice system. Already, and on that basis alone, this is superior to any speech Grayling made in the post.
The strength of the rhetoric opens out the possibilities of criticism. Certainly it is a vindication of those who have been warning for years that the poor have effectively lost access to justice. It expands the terms of debate and opens up the opportunity for more radical solutions than those seemingly on offer today.
But the actual policy proposals on evidence in Gove's speech – at least on the basis of what was revealed to the media – are far more modest than the scale of the criticism which triggered it.
All the solutions are based on technology or efficiency, two common saviours minsters are unwise to put much faith in. Technology will be used to speed up prosecution and make it less traumatic for victims in court. Court hours will be made more flexible. Video evidence from body-worn police cameras will be admissible in trials and there'll be more routine pre-trial hearings by video conference and email. Efficiency changes will ensure prisoners arrive on time, video-links work and paperwork does not go missing. Where possible, paperwork will be replaced by email.
Anyone who has been in court will have seen the agonisingly slow way it proceeds. Any effort to speed it up would be welcome, short of compromising on standards. But given the scale of the problem facing the justice system – a problem Gove himself has just outlined in striking and dramatic language – it seems a disappointing solution.
It's actually reminiscent of Ed Miliband, in that it follows lofty rhetoric with extremely modest policy solutions. It is also reminiscent of David Cameron's 'big society'. It highlights a major problem, then accepts there is no more money coming to fix it, and concerns itself only with solutions which don't cost much. It is the politics of limited resources.
Lord chief justice Lord Thomas has actually announced £700 million to be invested in the courts and tribunal service. In a speech this week he admitted this was partly the fault of the previous regime at the Ministry of Justice, while being open about the fact that he clearly was not going to be able to undo it.
"Successive cuts to legal aid and the escalating costs of lawyers [have] put access to justice out of the reach of the overwhelming majority of the population. No successful attempt had been made to use technology to address this issue."
The real solution to addressing two nations in the justice system is legal aid. That's what it has always been: a way of ensuring your relative wealth does not dictate your access to justice. After being savaged by Labour and the Tories as an easy target, that notion seems increasingly laughable. But no-one – not the justice secretary, legal aid campaigners or anyone in between – expects that process to be reversed. So instead Gove appears to be searching for other ways of fixing the problem.
There's more to come. Lord Thomas says a business case is about to be presented to the Treasury explaining how the money will be invested to improve efficiency.
"With a commitment to the resources in place, I hope that we can create a better court and tribunal system, with rules and procedures to ensure that the right work is carried out proportionately by the right judge, with a modernised court and tribunal estate and which uses technology to ensure that cases are dealt with efficiently, speedily and above all justly."
What we have seen today suggests that the solutions which will be proposed are far below the level of what would be required to address the problem Gove has himself highlighted. The justice secretary's tough, combative approach will see him take on vested interests and… make them use email.
This is what happens when you subtract economics from a radical critique: you end up tinkering and calling it revolution.