Comment: Chris Grayling has been taught he’s not above the law
By Nicola Hill
Friday, 2 pm – momentous news. Not north of the border but in court one of the Royal Courts of Justice. A senior judge rules that the lord chancellor and justice secretary has acted illegally. The highest law officer in England and Wales brought to book by judicial review.
What an irony. This is the very process Chris Grayling wants to restrict, to prevent ordinary people having the right to hold the state to account.
So what happened in the high court on Friday? The judge ruled that some of the biggest changes in the history of publicly funded legal aid had to be stopped in their tracks.
Grayling wanted to reduce the number of solicitors who are able to represent you, me, your teenage son or daughter at a police station or magistrates' court. But the high court decided the methods the minister tried to use to bring in these cuts were "so unfair as to be illegal".
It all centred on a consultation – one of those where they don't properly consult anyone who actually matters. But in this case it's even worse that. The Minstry of Justice suppressed two key reports which were instrumental in pushing through the changes.
The ruling means that it is back to the drawing board. They are now going to have to consult all over again about these highly controversial proposed solicitor contracts – arrangements which would have driven down standards and meant there were far fewer solicitors available in police stations and magistrates' courts. They'd have given rise to appalling legal advice deserts.
The brakes have been put on a politically motivated vandalism of our justice system, damage inflicted by the first non-lawyer to ever hold this post.
I am a lawyer and can see how momentous this judgment is. Momentous for people who have the right to a proper defence and momentous for the lawyers who want to do the job properly. It goes to the heart of what makes our justice system fair.
Grayling has also been taught a very basic but important legal lesson. He may be a senior Cabinet minister in charge of our courts, prisons and probation services but he is not above the law.
It got very personal, which isn't what you expect in the dryness of a judicial review. Grayling's tactics were labelled that of "bully and bluff", "divide and rule". It was, according to our side, a "caricature of fairness".
We don't like to get personal but – driven by ideology and underpinned by ignorance – these are very much Mr Grayling's reforms.
The justice secretary has a habit of burying his head in the sand, ignoring the real price of his cost-saving reforms in the criminal justice system, and effectively repeating: 'Crisis? What crisis?' We've seen a summer of discontent in the criminal justice system: with the deeply troubling rise in prison suicides, a meltdown in probation and a family court service at breaking point. We think of this terrible track record but the justice secretary would rather not.
Perhaps no longer. The lord chancellor has been thrown the rule book by a judicial process which he is attempting to shut down. Through sheer determination, guts and legal know-how, we criminal defence lawyers took on the might of the Ministry of Justice and won. No wonder Grayling wishes to restrict access to justice where the state has to account for its decisions.
What the high court ruling has allowed is room for an outbreak of sanity.
Let's stop using austerity as a cover for ideological changes. We want to improve the justice system as much as Grayling. We're ready to sit down and talk. But after this humbling judgment, is he?
Nicola Hill is president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association – one of the two claimants who won the judicial review. She is a partner with top-flight firm Kingsley Napley and specialises in crime and regulation.
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