The most successful members of the legal profession need to do more to help protect access to justice for all, the Lord Chancellor Michael Gove said today, warning that the status quo is not “defensible”.
In his first policy speech since taking office – some of which was trailed yesterday – Mr Gove said that the country’s “global leadership in legal services” has made a large number of organisations, and individuals, “very successful”.
But “a one nation approach to justice” cannot be blind to the fact that “while resources are rationed at one end of our justice system rewards are growing at the other end”.
He said: “There is no doubt that in the market for legal expertise, we are reaping the benefits of Britain’s huge competitive advantage. But the law is more than a marketplace, it is a community; the legal profession is more than a commercial enterprise, it is a vocation for those who believe in justice being done.
“The belief in the rule of law, and the commitment to its traditions, which enables this country to succeed so handsomely in providing legal services is rooted in a fundamental commitment to equality for all before the law. So those who have benefited financially from our legal culture need to invest in its roots.
“That is why I believe that more could – and should – be done by the most successful in the legal profession to help protect access to justice for all.”
Mr Gove acknowledged that “many of the most prestigious chambers at the Bar and many of the top solicitors’ firms” already contribute to pro bono work and invest in improving access to the profession, with some firms committing to giving 25 hours pro bono on average per fee-earner each year.
“That is welcome, but much more needs to be done,” he said.
The former education secretary continued: “Last year, according to a survey by the Law Society, 16% of solicitors in commerce and industry provided an hour or more pro bono work. When it comes to investing in access to justice then it is clear to me that it is fairer to ask our most successful legal professionals to contribute a little more rather than taking more in tax from someone on the minimum wage.
“I want to work with leaders in the profession to examine what the fairest way forward might be. But I cannot accept that the status quo is defensible.”
In a wide-ranging speech that also outlined his support for plans to introduce online dispute resolution, Mr Gove said he recognised how “controversial” recent criminal legal aid reforms have been and pledged to monitor their impact both on the quality of advocacy and access to justice.
“The coalition government sought to make sure legal aid remained available for critically important cases – where people’s life or liberty is at stake, where they face the loss of their home, in cases of domestic violence, or where their children may be taken into care.
“And when I came to office I made sure that the changes my predecessor had put in place to guarantee access to legal advice across the country were implemented. I also made sure that the criminal bar were protected from further cuts so that the high-quality advocacy they provide could be supported.
“Change was required to save money – no minister in this government can avoid thinking hard about how to deal with the massive deficit. But I am also committed to making sure that we protect access to justice for everyone accused of a crime, and safeguard and improve the quality of the legal advice and advocacy in our criminal courts.
“I am particularly keen to make sure that the highest-quality advocates are instructed in all cases, and have set in train immediate work to address the problems described in Sir Bill Jeffrey’s report on criminal advocacy last year.”