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A ‘one nation’ justice policy: Gove sets out agenda for justice system overhaul

Justice Secretary Michael Gove (pictured) has today (23 June) outlined his reform agenda for civil justice to tackle the ‘creaking, outdated’ current system by increasing the use of online tools, looking at whether formal hearings are always required and making cost savings through the court estate before further legal aid cuts.

The wide-ranging speech, entitled ‘What does a one nation justice policy look like?‘, touched upon criminal justice, legal aid, and bringing in a ‘one nation policy’ to ‘make sure every citizen of the UK felt they were equal partners’ while saying that the current system ‘restricts access to high quality resolution of disputes by being too complex, too bureaucratic and too slow.’

He added: ‘It is on that basis that the Prime Minister asked me to lead a programme of reform at the Ministry of Justice.’

Given at the Legatum Institute, the speech gave backing to possible reforms raised by Lord Chief Justice and in Sir Brian Leveson’s report earlier this year. It further addressed the need to challenge whether formal hearings are needed at all in civil cases and the potential for parties to submit and consider information online to speed up decision making and consider simple issues ‘far more proportionately.’

Gove said the judiciary’s reform programme is currently being planned and has already committed to invest in the technology which will underpin it. 

He noted the programme could ‘liberate tens of thousands of individuals from injustice and free hundreds of thousands of hours of professional time’ by making better use of online tools, as well as telephone and video hearings. ‘[This] can make justice easier to access and reduce the need for long – and often multiple – journeys to court. And we can reduce our dependence on an ageing and ailing court estate.’

Turning to address access to justice, which featured prominently in the tenure of his predecessor Chris Grayling regarding cuts made to legal aid, Gove called for the profession to do more pro bono work, saying ‘it is clear to me that it is fairer to ask our most successful legal professionals to contribute a little more rather than taking more in tax from someone on the minimum wage.’

While expecting the profession to do more for free, Gove also pointed to other possible efficiencies to be made before further legal aid cuts, and cited revisiting the issue of the court estate, which currently costs around one third of the entire courts and tribunals budget, and is burdened with ‘many courts standing idle for days and weeks on end.’ Gove noted that last year over a third of courts and tribunals sat for less than 50% of their available hours at a time when government departments are looking to make savings. He said: ‘It makes more sense to deliver a more efficient court estate than, for example, make further big changes to the legal aid system.’

The Lord Chancellor also signalled his support for ‘reformers’ like Professor Richard Susskind for enabling ‘huge opportunity’ to take many disputes online. His comments follow the Civil Justice Council advisory group, chaired by Susskind, in February calling for the introduction of state-backed online dispute resolution across England and Wales in 2017.

Gove said: ‘It astonishes businesses and individuals alike that they cannot easily file their case online. And it astounds them that they cannot be asked questions online and in plain English, rather than on paper and in opaque and circumlocutory jargon.’

Gove replaced Chris Grayling in the role weeks ago as part of Prime Minister David Cameron’s post-election reshuffle while Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner, Lord Falconer, was named as the Labour Party’s opposition spokesperson for the ministry. Gove became only the second non-lawyer to take on the role of Lord Chancellor in modern times.

His speech follows the announcement yesterday by HM Courts and Tribunals Service that it is planning to cut staff numbers by 400 as the ministry seeks new ways to trim its budget.

Commenting on the speech, chairman of the Bar Alistair MacDonald QC, said he welcomed the investment in court infrastructure and added: ‘It is very encouraging that he 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.’

For more on what the new government priorities mean for the legal profession see: The Queen’s Speech: What it holds for lawyers – devolution, referendum and the Snoopers’ Charter