Bob Neill MP: Knocking our legal system harms the national interest
Lawyers must be prepared to stand up and be counted, and there are those in parliament prepared to stand up with you, says justice select committee chair
Just over an hour after the chancellor, Phillip Hammond, revealed that Brexit will cost the UK £58.7bn over the next five years in a cautious Autumn statement, Bob Neill MP, an ardent Remainer, told Solicitors Journal that an exit without access to the single market could have profound effects for businesses and individuals, including lawyers.
'A hard Brexit would be very damaging for legal services,' says the chair of the justice select committee, over lemon biscotti and cup of tea. 'We've got to make sure it is a practical and business and socially friendly Brexit and that is important for legal services. It's important that we not only maintain things like passporting access for our legal services but also enforceability of judgments, and that's not just for multi-million pound companies, that's important around things like maintenance payments for families which are all done through a single European regulation. Ordinary people are caught up in that, not just businesses.'
Although Hammond committed to extra funding for the Ministry of Justice for the recruitment of 2,500 prison officers, any loosening of the purse strings to improve access to justice was nowhere to be seen. This does not go unnoticed by Neill. 'The government would say [access to justice] is a priority but they don't pay enough attention to the way in which some of the practical changes that have been made for financial reasons are actually in danger of getting in the way,' he points out. 'Lip service is being paid but we have to make sure that is not undermined in practice.'
The impact of cuts to the legal aid budget from £2.4bn to £1.6bn over the last parliament has wreaked havoc on civil and criminal divisions and unrelenting rises to court fees in employment tribunals and the civil justice system have priced many out of access to justice. According to Neill, a balance must be struck between efficiency, taxpayer funding, and access to justice. 'When you get to a stage where there's a potential collision between them then the access to justice point has to prevail. We're at that point with tribunal fees and criminal and family legal aid. We now need to be looking at how best can we make savings elsewhere in the system and recycle money into those areas which are under pressure.'
Salami slicing the justice budget has led to an unprecedented number of litigants in person. This week, Desmond Maurice Fitzgerald became the latest LiP to be slammed for abusing the court process in the family division and it seems unlikely he will be the last. 'The growth in LiPs is potentially a false economy,' says Neill. 'The cost and delays in doing a case with an unrepresented defendant are massive and that's a real problem, especially in private family law cases where most invariably you can have unrepresented people. Upfront legal advice would be good for them and good for the costs of the whole process.'
As Big Ben chimes, our discussion turns to the increasingly angry noises made by lawyers over Liz Truss's performance as Lord Chancellor. Tasked with resolving the justice crises, Truss has endured a baptism of fire since her appointment in July. Doubts over her credibility were cast even before she took office and reached new heights after she failed to promptly defend the judiciary's independence after three High Court judges were attacked by the tabloids following their judgment in Miller.
Concern over Truss' lack of legal qualifications, experience, and seniority, was previously expressed by Neill, Labour's Lord Falconer QC, and a host of other lawyers. The result of which was an allegation of misogyny from those close to the justice secretary. But with Truss' disapproval ratings continuing to climb among the profession, Neill says criticism of the Lord Chancellor for not moving fast enough to defend the 'High Court Three' was 'legitimate'.
'The independence of the press is to be respected but that is not a license to engage in personal abuse of those who because of their judicial oath cannot reply and are acting in accordance with that oath on behalf of society as a whole. Therefore it's legitimate for a politician to criticise press coverage when it has the effect of undermining the integrity of the judiciary.' However, the barrister and MP for Bromley and Chislehurst adds that Truss' final statement did say 'the right things' but was much too slow in coming.
Addressing behaviour of the media in further detail, Neill takes aim at one newspaper in particular and urged his fellow MPs to stand up for their own principles, regardless of negative headlines. 'Politicians of all parties are too easily spooked by some elements of the popular press. The Daily Mail should not have a veto on prison policy, sentencing policy, or legal policy. They are not representative. They make more noise than they have support in the country and ministers have to be prepared to be counted on that.'
Despite the misgiving, Neill praises Truss for coming through on the prison reforms championed by her predecessor, Michael Gove. 'Some criticism that she wasn't up to the brief was unfair,' he says. 'Now, she has been able to go ahead with major prison reform and ought to be given a fair crack of the whip on that. She has made the case with the Treasury to get extra funding and achieved a result that no other minister in an unprotected spending department has got in this particular spending round.'
With Brexit on the horizon, a justice system ailing, and the judiciary facing unprecedented attacks, is the UK at risk of harming the reputation of its world-renowned legal system? 'They're at risk provided we don't address them but we can address them pretty readily and the profession is already seeking to do so,' replies Neill. 'Anything that knocks the standing of our legal system is harming the national interest. The legal system and the legal services sector is a strategic national interest and it's an absolute obligation on government to protect that. All sensible politicians and all sensible commentators ought to realise that it's in our national interest.'
Looking ahead, Neill hopes the MoJ and Truss can deliver on prison reforms, stabilisation of access to justice and funding, and that assurances can be made for the legal sector during Brexit negotiations. 'They've got to get moving on the prison reform bill and when we have debates on the nature of Brexit, the MoJ is having full input into those negotiations and are being upfront about what they need for the legal system.'
In his two spells with the justice committee, first as a member between 2007 and 2010, and since July 2015, as chair, Neill says his colleagues have enjoyed a level of success holding the government to account over its policies. 'It has been effective,' he says. 'We've had instances where government has either wholly or in part made changes following our recommendations. The most obvious one is the criminal courts charge '“ that is a big win.'
Another 'big win' for the committee is the government's decision to withdraw its six-fold increases in fees for immigration and asylum tribunals, pending a review. Speaking to Neill over the phone today he says: 'Today's news is very welcome. It follows a recommendation of the committee's report so that's another area where presenting government with the evidence in a sensible and non-confrontational way has paid dividends.'
However, this approach doesn't always pay off, as Neill explained earlier in the week. 'Getting timely responses from government is a frustration and while very often there is an acceptance of the force of arguments and evidence, sometimes they either fall into the 'too hard to do box' in civil service speak, or there is an inherent cautiousness or inertia, in all government, not just the MoJ, that you have to try and overcome.'
Neill cites the government's 'completely unjustified' five month delay in the responding to the justice committee's report on court and tribunal fees, which he describes as 'an almost offensively thin perfunctory response'. 'That gave me the impression the ministry had not engaged properly with the evidence which I find both frustrating and annoying. The MoJ let itself down badly.'
In October, two of the ministry's most senior ministers gave evidence to MPs and placed their failure to disclose spending plans for the year ahead down to 'rustic forecasting' and 'flaky numbers'. For Neill this is another example of how government rarely learns from its failures because it refuses to bear risk. So can an under pressure MoJ buck the trend? 'I'll believe it when I see it,' he responds. 'I'm conscious the government does not have a good record in meeting expectations. It will only be done if we and others are very much on their case.'
Neill describes himself as positive, practical, and humorous, three qualities perhaps necessary for his fellow lawyers to navigate through the current hardship. For those practising at the coalface of the justice system, beleaguered by cuts, he offers some warm encouragement.
'My colleagues on the select committee and I are conscious that it is tough and the lawyer in me, as well as the politician, says that very often the work that people do isn't appreciated, it's not recognised enough, but there are plenty of people that do. Don't despair,' he continues, 'because this is a worthwhile profession, it makes a really big contribution to the nature of our being a civilised society and whatever the frustrations and setbacks, it's still worth going at. Without it we'd be in a much worse place as a society. Lawyers are doing a good job and we need them.'
Neill highlights the importance of MPs in 'talking to those in the coalface' and 'not becoming remote'. 'The profession has to be prepared to stand up and be counted but there are people in parliament who are prepared to stand up with them.'
Matthew Rogers is a reporter at Solicitors Journal