While yesterday’s (22 November) lukewarm autumn Budget saw fresh cash boosts handed out to the NHS and Ministry of Defence (MoD), chancellor Phillip Hammond’s financial forecasts revealed a £600m reduction in Ministry of Justice (MoJ) spending by 2019/20.
Hammond’s plans show that the budget for the MoJ for the 2017/18 financial year stands at £6.6bn, but that figure slips to £6.2bn for 2018/19 and then £6bn for 2019/20. The £600m reduction in funding represents a 9% drop.
Angela Rafferty QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, commented: ‘The poor and vulnerable in society are being denied access to justice. Whilst the official Budget statement is silent about this vital pillar of state, we can see from the spending forecast that there will be a £600m reduction in an already meagre and inadequate budget for the ministerial department. The system is desperate, it cannot endure any more cuts.’
Ashurst litigator and chairman of the City of London Law Society, Ed Sparrow, told Legal Business: ‘One has concerns, particularly at Brexit time. The rule of law and access to justice are very important and budget cuts in the MoJ are not helpful. The reason I say “Brexit time” is because our legal system is very highly valued and admired and businesses around the world choose to have their contracts judged by English law for a reason. I worry that budget cuts put that at risk.’
Dr Stuart Thomson, head of public affairs, government and infrastructure at Bircham Dyson Bell, was more sympathetic. He said that Hammond ‘has tried to cautiously crawl a path between economic prudence and political dynamism against a backdrop of downgraded growth forecasts’ and predicted that ‘unless the numbers prove not to stack-up over the coming days, the chancellor will have done enough to save his job’.
Despite plenty of criticism, other lawyers have drawn positives from the Budget. Among the other announcements was a legislative shake-up that will allow driverless cars to operate on UK roads by 2021. Deborah Newberry, head of public affairs at Kennedys, said: ‘the chancellor said that computer science will be at the heart of this revolution, and we fully support that view. We won’t be able to forge a path as world leaders in autonomous vehicle technology if we fail to invest in people and skills.’
There was positive news for pensions lawyers from the Budget, according to Sackers & Partners partner Claire Carey, who said: ‘The absence of any landmark announcements or further grabs on pensions tax relief is certainly very welcome and gives some much needed breathing space. With the impending arrival of the GDPR, for example, it is encouraging that the industry has been allowed to maintain its focus on this major issue.’