The strange case of the disappearing justice minister

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

Helen Grant: Scarlet Pimpernel?

Helen Grant became parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice on 3 September 2012. Replacing Jonathan Djanogly, she immediately became ‘my’ minister, in that she has responsibility for the areas of greatest interest to me – legal services and civil litigation (legal aid was moved to Lord McNally, presumably given Ms Grant’s history as a legal aid lawyer and previous public opposition to cuts).

I have met and questioned several ministers at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ)/Department for Constitutional Affairs/Lord Chancellor’s Department over the past 18 years or so, not to mention some Lord Chancellors, law officers and a Home Secretary.

For all the faults people saw in Mr Djanogly, I found him accessible and prepared to put his head above the parapet. Ms Grant is proving the opposite.

According to the MoJ’s own transparency data, in the six months between taking office and the end of March 2013 (the most recent entry on its website), she did not have any meetings with any of the legal regulators or major representative bodies, nor anyone connected with civil justice.

I’m told, however, that this data does not capture all engagements, and that the minister does regularly attend events and meetings relating to legal services and civil justice. This makes one question the value and indeed the transparency of this data, but that’s another issue.

I know she has given a few speeches and indeed heard one of them (it was short and read from a prepared script, and she took no questions, from what I can recall). She has attended some Law Society events, and no doubt others as well.

So I asked the MoJ a series of questions about what exactly Ms Grant has done in terms of formal meetings with stakeholders, interviews with journalists and giving speeches where there were also questions from the floor. It is worth remembering that, unusually, she has a second brief as minister for women and equalities, which put her at the forefront of the debate over gay marriage. So I also asked how she split her time between the two posts.

I got this not terribly helpful reply: “Helen Grant’s role includes responsibilities as minister for victims and courts and minister for women and equalities. She is closely involved with the policies across her portfolio and takes an active role in media and stakeholder work.”

In light of this response, I have contacted various stakeholders to ask how many formal meetings they have had with the minister (there is informal contact at various events).

Since taking office, she has had two meetings with the Legal Services Board chairman (one an introductory meeting, the other following publication of the board’s annual report in June), three meetings with the Law Society (one on diversity, one on civil justice, and one on both), and one each with the Legal Ombudsman, the Bar Council and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives.

Surprisingly, there have been no meetings with the chairs of the Bar Standards Board or Solicitors Regulation Authority.

Should she be making more of an effort? In fairness there is more to her MoJ brief than regulation and civil justice – victims, the courts, administrative justice and judicial policy among others – and then she has her entirely separate role to fill her time as well. Formal meetings with any minister are not easily secured and the transparency data for the previous year does not indicate that Mr Djanogly’s door was that much more open. But that data clearly only tells part of the story and my impression is that it was.

Put simply, Ms Grant does not seem to be out in public very often on matters of direct concern to the profession. It is fair enough, I suppose, to be cautious in her first few weeks and even months in office, but a year?

There is a view among many to whom I have spoken that she is being shielded by MoJ officials. She is certainly not being pushed forward.

As far as I’m aware, the only interview with an established legal journalist was a clearly tightly controlled affair with The Times not long after her appointment. This dealt solely with judicial diversity.

I have requested an interview with her countless times – including on the one occasion I have met her – and the best I have got is an offer of an e-mail interview. E-mailing questions that her officials would answer, even if she then checked them over, would not be an interview and I have declined the not very generous offer.

The Daily Telegraph has had her in its crosshairs, with stories about her expenses and problems in her constituency office – and recently reported rumours that she was struggling with the justice portfolio – but surely she has a responsibility to front up more publicly about the Jackson reforms, the referral fee ban, the review of legal services regulation and other big issues facing the profession? All I see are written statements and quotes from the MoJ press office.

Has Ms Grant become the Scarlet Pimpernel of justice ministers? I don’t know. It is one of the many questions I would like to ask her – just not by e-mail.

POSTSCRIPT: On 7 October, three days after this blog was published, Ms Grant was reshuffled out of the MoJ and on to the Department for Culture, Media and Sports, where she will be parliamentary under-secretary of state for sport and equalities. While a sideways move, the sports brief is undoubtedly higher profile than any at the MoJ.

    Readers Comments

  • You are not alone, Neil. I deal with the MoJ on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. They have been refusing my request for an interview for the best part of a year. No reason. She’s just too busy. Even had a press officer screaming at me to stop bothering them! Now, when a government press officer screams, they have something to hide. Mrs Grant is supposed to be overseeing all the new bailiff legislation. Yet she’s yet to appear at any of the Work Group or Briefing or Professional body meetings – and there have been dozens. Mmmmm.

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