Michael Gove and Legal Reform

The new Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, has threatened to introduce legislation to make successful City lawyers contribute more towards those who face difficulty seeking access to justice. In a remarkable speech titled ‘What does a One Nation justice policy look like?’ , Gove outlined the importance of the rule of law emphasizing its historical roots in landmark events including the Magna Carta and the abolition of slavery.

However, Gove also stated that the rule  of law is under threat by a two-tier legal system which is failing to support ordinary citizens. He gave the example of a woman who had to wait two years to press a rape charge as a result of the inefficiency and pointless delays that plague the criminal justice system. Interestingly, Gove also highlighted the need to reform the way in which lawyers and judges communicate, specifically when exchanging evidence and court bundles. He suggested that emails and conference calls could replace unnecessary hearings, heralding a more digital approach for access to justice.

He further highlighted the need to for reform in the civil justice system, suggesting that online dispute resolution, online form filling and video hearings would free up the precious time of judges in order to focus on the needs and rights of the client. He name checked Richard Susskind, the renowned legal reformer, who advocates for the commoditisation of the delivery of legal services to increase the public’s access to justice through allowing a busy market of legal providers to be develop who operate through offering competitive prices. As Gove rightly recognises, technology will play a major role in bringing the legal system into the 21st century.

Many have welcomed Gove’s speech as signalling a positive step towards collaboration and partnership between the Ministry of Justice and the legal profession. Resolution, the campaign group for family lawyers, said it would “welcome any move that improves the experience of people going through a break-up when they come into contact with the courts”, whilst also expressing concern on the reality of impact that technology would have on the civil justice system. Social media commentators also seemed to welcome Gove’s speech with John Hyde from the Law Gazzette tweeting “whatever else, refreshing to have justice secretary willing to speak in public. Don’t remember anything else like this in Grayling’s time.”

Although Gove’s speech was mostly welcomed by the legal profession, it remains to be seen how and what reforms will be implemented. With Gove’s (in)famous reputation as a radical reformer from his previous position as Education Secretary so maligned by the teaching profession, any plans for legal reform must be critically scrutinised if they are to benefit and improve access to justice.

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