The new faces of justice

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14 May 2010

Time for change: what does the new MoJ team mean for legal policy?

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

Everyone’s favourite game at the moment is trying to predict what the new team at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) means for the key legal policy issues in the Lord Chancellor’s in-tray.

The appointment of Ken Clarke to the top job caught everyone by surprise, the man included, and though he is a QC, his history of taking on vested interests with relish does not bode well for those from the Law Society and Bar Council gearing up to negotiate with him over the future of legal aid. I’m told that Mr Clarke’s message to civil servants at the MoJ is that the deficit is the first, second and third priority.

And given his general approach to business matters, it would perhaps be a surprise if Mr Clarke were to back both slowing down the introduction of alternative business structures and a ban on referral fees.

The two ministers of state at the MoJ were also named last night from each side of the coalition. For the Lib Dems we have Lord McNally, an original SDP defector in the early 1980s who has for the last four years been their constitutional affairs spokesman in the House of Lords apparently. I say “apparently” because whenever I have followed Lords debates on legal issues in recent years, shadow attorney general Lord Thomas of Gresford has spoken for the party.

For the Tories we have another non-lawyer, Nick Herbert, who held the shadow justice secretary role until being reshuffled to environment last year (his replacement, Dominic Grieve, the man widely expected to be the new Lord Chancellor, has become Attorney General). So at least he knows something about the issues, although he has a joint role with the Home Office to oversee police reform. I interviewed Mr Herbert four days before the reshuffle (thus the interview, somewhat annoyingly, was never used as the magazine had not gone to print at that point) and though I cannot remember anything much of what he said, he was a charismatic and likeable politician up close.

Now we await the junior ministerial appointments. These could be crucial. If Henry Bellingham retains his pre-election shadow justice role, where he took the lead on many of the issues closest to the interests of lawyers, then surely some of his ideas may come to the fore. These include the plan to consolidate all client accounts in one place to cream off the interest for the legal aid fund.

It might also need someone like him, who at least knows what the Jackson report is, even if he does not like all of it, to see some value in pushing forward reform of the costs system. Mr Bellingham has previously expressed scepticism about the new process, but now that it is up and, kind of, running (conveniently the week before the election), it is presumably harder to scrap). By the way, I’m told that the first claim through the new process was finished and paid yesterday.

Finally it is worth noting that Grant Shapps has retained his housing brief after being appointed minister at the communities department. Will he now make good on his intention to scrap compulsory home information packs and what will that mean for law firms which have altered their business plans to accommodate them?

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