The new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice used her first appearance in the House of Commons to label Birmingham law firm Public Interest Lawyers as “ambulance chasers”.
The firm – which has come in for heavy criticism from politicians and newspapers for its work in suing over the alleged mistreatment of Iraqis by British forces – had its legal aid contract withdrawn last month and closed its doors on 31 August.
There are also ongoing proceedings before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
In the first justice questions since the reshuffle, Conservative MP Jack Lopresti asked Ms Truss to “commit herself to using all the powers at her disposal to protect British military personnel and veterans, who have served our country bravely and with great honour, from spurious and outrageous legal claims such as those pursued by law firms such as Public Interest Lawyers”.
She responded: “I am delighted to tell my honorable friend that this summer the Legal Aid Agency pulled the plug on its contract with Public Interest Lawyers, who will no longer be ambulance-chasing our brave service personnel.
“Legal aid should support vulnerable people in our society. It should not be used to pursue spurious cases against the armed forces who do so much to serve our country.”
On other issues, responding to a question on whether she intended to promote English law and the legal sector following Brexit, Ms Truss said: “English law has had a huge impact, spreading the rule of law around the world. It is the law of choice in over a quarter of jurisdictions, and Brexit gives us even more opportunities to promote this. I will be championing our £25 billion legal services industry as a key part of post-Brexit global Britain.”
Ms Truss was asked about what the government could do to speed up diversity in the legal profession. “We want a justice system that works for everyone and a legal services industry that uses all the talent in our country. I have already had very positive conversations with the Lord Chief Justice, who is keen to improve diversity figures in the judiciary, and I am due to meet the Bar Council shortly to talk specifically about the Bar,” she said.
She added that she was a “huge fan of apprenticeships”, saying that “the new apprenticeship levy brings a big opportunity for some of our large legal services firms, and right across the board, to increase the number of apprenticeships. I will certainly be talking to those firms about that over the coming months”.
Her Labour shadow, Richard Burgon, said that the costs of legal training were so high as to be “beyond the reach of many people from ordinary backgrounds. Given that reality, how will the minister ensure a diverse legal profession?”
Ms Truss replied: “I have been discussing this matter right across the legal profession. At the younger end we are seeing a lot more diversity; the question is how people progress through the pipeline. I would like more transparency so that we can look at people moving through the system. I have no doubt that the Lord Chief Justice and leading judges want to see more diversity. They are very keen to work with me on this agenda.”
Ms Truss also confirmed the government’s intention to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a bill of rights – while remaining inside the European Convention on Human Rights – but gave no detail as to the content or timing.
Her ministerial team fielded some questions, but despite attempts by three different MPs for him to set out a timetable for publication of the Ministry of Justice’s long-overdue review of the impact of employment tribunal fees, minister of state Sir Oliver Heald would only say that it would be published “in due course”.
He was also asked about constituencies which have only one legal aid law firm to deal with housing, reflecting a recent Law Society campaign about housing advice ‘deserts’.
Sir Oliver said: “It is important for legal aid to be available, and it is, in housing cases. It is also available in the most vital cases, in which people’s lives, liberty or homes are at stake. It is available in domestic violence cases, and cases in which children may be taken into care…
“Let us be clear about the fact that legal aid in housing cases is available, as is a national helpline, as well as the services of lawyers throughout the country.”