A criminal law barrister who has called for the restoration of legal aid for early advice has become the new minister at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) responsible for legal aid.
Alex Chalk was a member of the justice select committee in the last Parliament that strongly criticised aspects of the MoJ’s whiplash reforms – although he nonetheless voted for the Civil Liability Act 2018 – and also has responsibility for them.
Mr Chalk was quietly announced as a new junior minister last month, and has taken on much of the brief previously held by Chris Philp, who has been given a raft of new responsibilities jointly at the MoJ and Home Office. He is the minister for immigration compliance and the courts.
The MP for Cheltenham since 2015, Mr Chalk’s brief includes family law, criminal law, legal aid, legal support, human rights and shadowing in the House of Commons Lord Keen’s portfolio – this includes civil law and justice, legal services and the relationship with the legal professions.
Mr Chalk practised from 6KBW College Hill, and prosecuted and defended in the most serious cases, such as terrorism, international fraud and homicide. He was co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Public Legal Education and Pro Bono.
Writing on the ConservativeHome website on 2018 ahead of the MoJ publishing its LASPO review, he outlined the cuts to the legal aid budget that followed the Act and said “there is now a serious concern that, without some steps to restore a measure of access to justice, serious injustice will inevitably follow”.
He put forward two “proportionate, cost-effective, measures that would improve access to justice without blowing a hole in the public finances”: restoring legal aid for early legal advice and updating the financial eligibility requirements for legal aid.
“In 1980, civil legal aid was available for 80% of the country. Today, the figure is thought to be under 20%. Ordinary working people who are just about managing are now considered too rich to be eligible for legal aid.”
As a member of the justice select committee, he signed up to its report in May 2018 that the small claims limit for personal injury cases should rise from £1,000 to £1,500, and not £5,000 as the MoJ plans to do this year.
The committee said: “We received compelling evidence of the obstacles that would be faced by self-represented claimants navigating the current PI claims process in the small claims track, regardless of the value of their claim, and we conclude that this would represent an unacceptable barrier to access to justice.”
Though it seems unlikely that MoJ policy on whiplash reform will be changed substantially at this stage, Mr Chalk may be more amenable to it than Mr Philp, who was one of the main cheerleaders for the reforms when he was on the backbenches.
However, during the passage of the Civil Liability Act in Parliament later in 2018, he spoke strongly in favour of the legislation, which he described as “fair and proportionate” – even though he said his wife was a personal injury lawyer. “I feel confident that I can take on the domestic dispute just as I have taken on opposition members in this House,” he said.
Meanwhile, the justice select committee has welcomed six new members for the new Parliament, under the continuing chairmanship of Sir Bob Neill, the Conservative criminal law barrister.
The other returning members are Conservative John Howell, a former EY partner and journalist, and from Labour employment barrister Ellie Reeves, ex-St Helens council leader Marie Rimmer and one-time personal injury and housing law barrister Andy Slaughter.
Four of the new faces are Conservatives: Rob Butler, a former journalist who previous served as a non-executive director of HM Prison and Probation Service and member of the Sentencing Council; criminal defence solicitor James Daly; family law barrister Sarah Dines; and Kieran Mullan, an A&E doctor.
They are joined by Labour’s Maria Eagle, a one-time personal injury and housing law solicitor, and the SNP’s Kenny MacAskill, who was a Scottish solicitor before spending seven years as Scotland’s justice secretary.