David Gauke, the justice secretary, delivered an upbeat assessment this morning on his chances of boosting the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) budget after huge cuts.
Giving evidence to the House of Lords constitution committee, Mr Gauke said he was “hoping to make progress” on the budget for the current financial year, while making the department’s case to the Treasury for the next spending review.
He said the Treasury had increased the budget by £916m in 2016, when he was chief secretary of the Treasury, and the MoJ got an additional £1.2bn with the supplementary estimate for the financial year 2018-19.
Pressed on where the £1.2bn had been spent by former Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, Mr Gauke said part of the additional money had gone on the legal aid system.
“The demand for legal aid has been greater than anticipated and changes to the Advocates Graduated Fee Scheme had to be funded.
“I know there is sometimes a concern that additional resources are always thrown at the prison system. That is not the concern here.
“We’re hoping to make progress on the main estimate for 2019-20 in the near future and we’ve been working constructively with the Treasury.”
Beyond that, Mr Gauke said the MoJ’s budget would depend on the next spending review and creating a “medium and long-term vision” of where the department was going, so there was a case for a settlement “that is sustainable and enables us to deliver what we need to deliver.”
The justice secretary said part of the business case was about technology, but it was also about the “immediate challenges we need to meet for the department to function”.
He said “immediate challenges” included remuneration of the judiciary, court maintenance, legal aid and access to justice.
Mr Gauke said the Treasury had recognised “how tight” the MoJ’s budget now was and he hoped more could be said about the budget in the near future.
On judicial recruitment, he gave strong backing to an idea put forward last month by Lady Hale, president of the Supreme Court, that there should be an “across the board” increase in the retirement age to 72.
Mr Gauke said he was “increasingly of the view” that a lot of judicial talent was being lost at 70, and an increase to 72 might boost applications from older lawyers who wanted a “worthwhile career” in the judiciary.
“There is a strong case to be made for moving to 72. It is not for me here and now to announce a change of policy, but I hear the argument and want to explore it further.”
Earlier in the session, Mr Gauke announced that a Courts and Tribunals Online Procedures Bill would be introduced into the House of Lords this afternoon.
Mr Gauke said the bill would create an online procedures rule committee to “oversee the modernisation of the court system and ensure that digital services are fit for purpose”.
This will finally make good on provisions in the Prisons & Courts Bill that were lost when the 2017 election was called.
The justice secretary said: “There is quite a lot more we can do on court reform without having all of the legislation in place, but I am keen to get as much of the legislation as we can in place in any event.
“We’ve had one bill [the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Act 2018], another is on the way. If we can find further opportunities for legislation in this area, then that would be ideal.”
Mr Gauke said he hoped the new bill could be progressed “pretty quickly” through Parliament and complete its passage this session, but, without mentioning the word ‘Brexit’, he said that might depend on “wider issues”.