The legal profession returns to work today trying to decide whether or not the appointment of Michael Gove as the new Lord Chancellor and secretary of state for justice is an improvement on the deeply unpopular Chris Grayling.
Now the second non-lawyer to hold the post of Lord Chancellor, Mr Gove is a Scottish-born journalist who held his Surrey Heath seat with a majority of 24,804.
An “ally” was quoted in the Sunday Times as saying it was “a very good thing” that Mr Gove was not legally qualified: “You shouldn’t put a teacher in charge of the department for education… or a lawyer in charge of the Ministry of Justice.”
Mr Gove, who was chief whip before the election, was renowned in his previous role as education secretary for taking on the teaching unions, and it appears that he has been appointed with imminent moves to repeal the Human Rights Act in mind.
According to the Daily Telegraph, the controversial plan to replace the Act with a British Bill of Rights will be announced in the Queen’s Speech, expected on 27 May.
It will put the government on a collision course with the legal profession, civil liberties groups and Conservative MPs such as former Attorney Geneal Dominic Grieve and former Lord Chancellor Ken Clarke, all of whom strongly oppose the change.
Under the headline ‘Why Michael Gove is the right man to being the lawyers to heel’, Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, said that while education secretary “he saw for himself how the rule of law was becoming something different: rule by lawyers”, through the use of the Human Rights Act and the Equalities Act to stifle the changes he wanted to make.
He wrote: “Gove saw, first hand, how the imposition of the European Convention of Human Rights on to British law created shedloads of unintended results. And how the mess was being exploited by the enemies of reform. This is solvable. Chris Grayling has long pledge to replace it with a British Bill of Rights – which is within the gift of Parliament. MPs can simply rule that the senior is not Strasbourg, but the UK Supreme Court.
“So Gove’s move to justice makes a lot of sense. The law really does need simplification, and he’s the man to build on what Chris Grayling has achieved.”
The Sunday Times said Mr Gove will also be tasked with ensuring “faster and fairer access to justice”, and furthering Mr Grayling’s work on improving rehabilitation and education in prisons.
The Conservative Ministry of Justice will push ahead with the controversial legal aid tenders, which will slash the number of criminal law firms with contracts, while claimant personal injury (PI) lawyers will fear a return to the idea of raising the small claims limit for PI from £1,000 to £5,000, which would take a large swathe of everyday cases out of the main court system.
Legal Futures understood that it had been Mr Grayling’s intention to return to reform of legal regulation in the second or third year of a new government, and it remains to be seen if Mr Gove continues along the same road.
Frances Edwards, president of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), said Mr Gove’s appointment was “a statement of how important the work of the Ministry of Justice will be in this next Parliament, and in the coming weeks I look forward to meeting with him and discussing his priorities”.
She continued: “CILEx is eager to work constructively with the new government, though it must be acknowledged that legal professionals and experts feel their views have not been fully taken into account in recent years. I hope this trend is reversed, and I and my profession are ready to engage.”
Mr Grayling becomes leader of the House of Commons, while education secretary Nicky Morgan, a former City solicitor who is also equalities minister, was reappointed to both roles.
Former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer has returned to the shadow cabinet as Mr Gove’s shadow. The previous shadow Lord Chancellor, Sadiq Khan, has stepped down, with commentators predicting that this is a prelude to a bid to become Mayor of London.