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Guest post: Grayling’s conference speech – main points and some reflections

Earlier this week, Chris Grayling MP, Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, delivered his speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.

Like the speech of Sadiq Khan MP at the Labour Party Conference, Grayling’s speech was short. He opened by referring to a story in the Daily Mail about several young men having an easy time in prison. We were informed that, ‘within twelve hours, they were in segregation. Locked up for longer in their cells, not hanging out with their mates. Without a TV. Privileges stripped. Weeks added to their sentences after a swift disciplinary process.’ Good red meat for the party faithful.

In the speech on 30 September, Grayling went on to refer to the need for confidence in the justice system and that victims often felt let down. Next he referred to some changes in the law which had already been enacted such as the legal position of householders who defend themselves against intruders – (ref: Crime and Courts Act 2013 s43). There was no Sky TV in prison or 18 certificate DVDs. As for prisoners who damage their cells, they would be made to pay for the repairs. (In practice, likely to be a very problematic policy given the financial position of many prisoners).

Prisoners should not get legal aid so that they ‘complain about the prison we put them in, and use it to try and get an easier ride elsewhere’. Such a sound-bite devalues the crucial role which legal aid has played in securing better treatment and fairness for prisoners. In similar vein, immigrants should not receive legal aid until they satisfy a ‘residence test’. This controversial policy is part of the government’s programme to cut legal aid and is under public consultation until 18 October.

Like Sadiq Khan, Grayling also referred to cautions. The use of the simple caution for serious offences is to be brought to an end. Logically, one would expect that cautions would be less likely for serious offences and Grayling seems on safe ground here with a policy that will command some general support. (On this see the Ministry of Justice press release 30 September). In particular, simple cautions will not be permitted for possession of knives – (this is presumably a reference to Criminal Justice Act 1988 s139 where the maximum penalties for possession of knives have been increased on a number of occasions).

The release of serving prisoners at the halfway point of their sentence is something Grayling plans to do next. He then moved on to talk about the ‘merry go round’ of repeat offenders. For Grayling, prison works but does not work well enough. It cannot be doubted that there are some offenders who continue to reoffend and breaking that cycle has tended to defy the criminal justice system. However, there has been recognition in recent years that drug and alcohol problems need to be addressed as part of rehabilitation and that, while in prison, there must be effective programmes to at least start to address those problems. Even short term prisoners (less than 12 months) will come under supervision when they leave prison. This could be very resource-intensive unless the use of short term imprisonment is reduced significantly.

Grayling saved international challenges to the end of his speech. First, Brussels. He claimed that the EU sought a single justice system for Europe and that was one reason to renegotiate the UK’s terms of EU membership. Secondly, the European Court of Human Rights. Change was necessary and, in 2014, the Conservative Party would publish a document and a draft bill. The document would say what they would do if they win the 2015 election and the draft bill would ‘scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act’.

Grayling declared:

* We will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act.

* We will make sure that with legal rights go legal responsibilities.

* Our Supreme Court should be in Britain and not in Strasbourg.

These issues are discussed in my previous post of 26 September. The sentence about the Supreme Court being in Britain suggests the possibility of withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. Other Ministers have, in their speeches, been more specific – for example’s Theresa May’s 2013 conference speech. May said: ‘The next Conservative manifesto will promise to scrap the Human Rights Act. It’s why Chris Grayling is leading a review of our relationship with the European Court. And it’s why the Conservative position is clear – if leaving the European Convention is what it takes to fix our human rights laws, that is what we should do.’

Here was a speech which avoided almost entirely the fact that the coalition government has removed effective access to justice in areas of law of immense importance to many – particularly the less advantaged in the country. For Grayling, he is right and the thousands of mostly adverse responses to his legal aid consultation are wrong. The arrogance is astounding and there was no recognition of the beneficial effects which the 1998 Human Rights Act has undoubtedly delivered to English law. The government’s policies are bringing about a fundamental change to the relationship between the citizen and the state and it is a recalibration in favour of the state. There are good reasons to be concerned for the future.

The law blogger ObiterJ writes at Law and Lawyers. Click here to follow on Twitter.

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