Let us not become the Trump card
The Queen's Speech did little to support the legal profession while the Human Rights Act dances with devil in limbo, writes John van der Luit-Drummond
The pomp and ceremony of this week's state opening of parliament could do nothing to hide the fact that the government has both eyes firmly fixed on the upcoming EU referendum. As a result, the Queen's Speech had an air of 'after the Lord Mayor's show' about it.
Of the 30 announcements made, 28 had been heard before, and there was very little for lawyers to get excited about. Entreaties to maintain the independence of the legal profession and tackle the challenges plaguing the justice system - legal aid, enhanced court fees, and civil justice reform - were ignored by the government. No doubt white-collar crime and tax practices will closely follow the Criminal Finances Bill, while all lawyers should remain concerned over legally privileged communications being targeted for surveillance in the Investigatory Powers Bill.
The centrepiece of the speech, the justice secretary's prison reforms, should, in theory, be welcomed. But, as critics have already explained, the biggest prison shake-up 'since Victorian times' will not solve the issues of overcrowding and underfunding. Latest figures show 32,313 incidents of self-harm by prisoners, a 39 per cent increase since 2013. The number of serious assaults during the same period has risen by 130 per cent to 2,813. Most worryingly, 100 suicides in custody were reported in the past year, a 92 per cent rise on three years ago.
Chris Grayling, whose tenure at the Ministry of Justice coincided with a rapid decline in prison standards, dismissed concerns about overcrowding, and blamed access to drugs and 'legal highs' for our rotten prison estate. His parroting of the prime minister's commitment to 'do more with less' will not have convinced prison lawyers that real changes are coming.
The ditching of a superfluous Sovereignty Bill and meagre mention of a British Bill of Rights did have legal tongues wagging, however. Nevertheless, it seems increasingly likely we will see the Chilcot report published before details of the government's human rights panacea are known.
As Labour's Jeremy Corbyn promised parliament that his party would defend the embattled Human Rights Act, a coalition of 136 organisations, including law firms, united to oppose the Bill Of Rights plans. How successful they will be is uncertain but, responding to the Queen's Speech, Liberty's policy director, Bella Sankey, said the prime minister had 'blinked again' by failing to provide more details of the Bill.
'This proposal is worthy of the Donald Trump campaign trail, not a government that claims to govern compassionately for "one nation",' she said. 'From Hillsborough to Deepcut, the government must listen to the thousands who have relied on the Act for protection, truth, and justice and dump this troubled policy once and for all.' Surely, if anything will make David Cameron rethink his plans, it is being compared to 'the Donald'. Or will it?