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Liz Truss becomes first female Lord Chancellor

Historic appointment replaces Michael Gove at Ministry of Justice, but can she solve the government's human rights riddle? John van der Luit-Drummond reports

15 July 2016

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As predicted, Michael Gove's tenure as secretary of state for justice has come to an end after his sacking and the historic appointment of Elizabeth Truss, the first woman and third non-lawyer to hold the ancient office of Lord Chancellor.

Hopes and rumours among lawyers that Dominic Grieve QC might return to the cabinet as justice secretary in Theresa May's new-look government were always fanciful. It is worth remembering that the former prime minister, David Cameron, sacked the then attorney general for being a thorn in the side of his plans to repeal the Human Rights Act - a dream shared by the new premier.

Until recently, May had her sights set even higher than Labour's embattled 1998 Act and had argued that the UK should remain in the EU but withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights instead. Why would May install a Lord Chancellor who was opposed to one of her party's manifesto commitments, not to mention a policy that she deeply believes in?

Surprising as it is to write a year on from his appointment as head of the Ministry of Justice, Gove will be missed by the legal profession. Despite early fears he might be an ideologue - following his stint as education secretary - Gove showed himself to be a reformer in every positive sense of the word, willing to tackle the nation's rotten prison estate, which had been largely ignored by his predecessors.

Gove was also willing to erase from history some of the most appalling decisions of Chris Grayling: tearing up the Saudi prison contract, ditching the criminal courts charge, scrapping the prison book ban, and cancelling the dual contract regime. The profession's appreciation and more recent acceptance of Gove, despite not being one of its own, must, however, be viewed through the prism that he was not 'failing Grayling'. But will Gove's stock rise even higher after a few months of his replacement in office?

For those frantically googling 'Liz Truss', try to ignore the excruciatingly awkward videos of her wide-eyed enthusiasm for pork markets in Beijing and her almost visceral reaction to news that the UK imports two-thirds of its cheese (apparently it's a disgrace).

An Oxford graduate with a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics, Truss was deputy director of the thinktank Reform before being elected to parliament in 2010. Though most recently the secretary of state for environment, food, and rural affairs, the MP for South West Norfolk does have some legal credentials, having sat on the justice select committee in 2011.

A committee contemporary, former shadow attorney general Karl Turner, described Truss' appointment as 'worrying' for lawyers as she was 'very hard on legal aid', a statement backed up by her voting record. Truss backed reforms to legal aid in all votes leading up to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. She also voted against making legal aid available to social welfare claims and for children. In addition, she backed limits on success fees in no-win no-fee cases.

However, the recently resigned shadow justice secretary, Lord Falconer, said Labour would work 'constructively' with Truss on a 'bold new prison reform agenda' first envisaged by Gove. He also said he hoped Truss would be given the resources to 'properly manage our crisis-hit prisons'.

Welcoming the news, the Law Society's chief executive, Catherine Dixon, said Chancery Lane looked forward to working with Truss. 'This is a moment of significant change for the country and we are particularly focused on access to justice and that ensuring people's rights are safeguarded,' she said.

Zoe Gascoyne, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said: 'Truss brings a wealth of governmental and select committee experience to the role. As an association we very much look forward to meeting with her in the coming months to build on her predecessors' work to guarantee access to justice and stability within the legal aid system.'

Tweeting confirmation of her new position, Truss said: 'Delighted to be appointed secretary of state for justice and Lord Chancellor. Looking forward to getting stuck in.' No doubt getting 'stuck in' will include attempts to solve a riddle that eluded both Grayling and Gove during their tenures: what exactly does a British Bill of Rights look like?

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal
john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk
 @JvdLD

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