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Kerry Underwood

Senior partner , Underwoods Solicitors

How committed to the rule of law is the new Lord Chancellor?

How committed to the rule of law is the new Lord Chancellor?


Liz Truss's words in support of legal aid must be followed by meaningful action, says Philip Armitage

Liz Truss's words in support of legal aid must be followed by meaningful action, says Philip Armitage

Now the dust has
settled on Liz Truss's appointment as Lord Chancellor, she has an ominous in-tray to get on with.

How does she draft a British Bill of Rights which appeases the right-wing hardliners and the so-called Runnymede Tories? Will she try to introduce the legal aid residence test through primary legislation when it was so fundamentally rejected by the Supreme Court? And will she stand strong or buckle on legal aid when the Treasury starts applying financial pressure?Truss started well enough with her opening remarks at her swearing-in ceremony. The first female Lord Chancellor spoke warmly about how 'the rule of law is the cornerstone of the British way of life' and she quoted Lord Bingham on the dangers of 'show trials'. But these are easy soundbites. What the legal profession now wants to see is how policy matches rhetoric.

Her immediate predecessor, Michael Gove, made significant attempts to reverse some of the previous government's most damaging policies. Although not perfect, Gove halted the Ministry of Justice's constant attacks on the legal aid budget whenever savings were demanded by the Treasury.

In particular, in the area
of criminal law, the dual contracting system was cancelled and the 8.75 per
cent solicitor litigation fee cut was postponed. The latter was especially welcome for many small legal aid firms. Or at
least as welcome as a stay of execution can be: the fee cut postponement was only until April 2017 and we await news from the new Lord Chancellor about what will happen now. Such a fee cut could spell the end for some criminal firms - firms which are at the heart of defending the rule of law and preventing the 'show trials' where individuals are forced
to represent themselves.

If Truss is committed to the rule of law, she must at the very least make this postponement permanent.

Sadly, her past comments
do not provide a great deal
of encouragement. When she was working on the Justice Committee, she repeatedly clashed with guests who argued against legal aid cuts. On several occasions, she repeated Chris Grayling's line that the UK had one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world in order to make the case for cuts.

But all Lord Chancellors come into the job with a blank slate. At her swearing-in ceremony, Truss said how impressed she had been by a female barrister defending clients and ensuring justice was done at Leeds
Crown Court. Now she would
do well to reflect on how that barrister could afford to do
such admirable work and how solicitors could afford to do the unseen preparation without legal aid funding.

So, welcome to your post, Lord Chancellor. Now is the time to put your money where your mouth is.

Philip Armitage is a committee member of the Young Legal Aid Lawyers @YLALawyers

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