Pressure mounts on MoJ
Ministry must overcome a challenging period and address its financial issues or risk further damage to its credibility
It's been another tough week at the Ministry of Justice, with pressure to see results growing from outside and within.
As the Legal Aid Agency backed down last week on plans to impose an 'embarrassment' clause on criminal legal aid providers, two of the ministry's senior staff faced the Justice Select Committee in a one-off evidence session on last year's accounts. Committee chair Bob Neill grilled the civil servants over the ministry's failure to disclose spending plans for the year ahead. All other ministries have.
'Flaky numbers' arising from 'rustic forecasting' was their explanation, along with ministerial changes, which have seen three justice secretaries in less than 18 months. The MoJ has previous on spending omissions. An NAO report earlier this year showed it failed to disclose acceptance of gifts and hospitality for three quarters between April 2012 and March 2015.
On the one hand the MoJ champions our 'generous legal aid system' and says it will not impose further cuts, while on the other it is pressing on with the increase in court fees in the face of staunch opposition. There is a lot of white noise coming out of Petty France but the ministry cannot ignore the growing disdain from inside parliament over constricting access to justice. The rushing of legal aid reforms has been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee, which has also called for improvements to the 'overstretched' criminal justice system.
Caught between a rock and a hard place following budget cuts and the impact of LASPO, the MoJ is trying to balance protection of the 'most vulnerable' and the interest of taxpayers, who footed the bill for the scrapped criminal legal aid proposals and the controversial deal to export prison expertise to Saudi Arabia.
As it looks to get its finances in order, the ministry must manage the implementation of 16 major government projects, including a £700m reform programme to modernise courts and tribunals '“ part of £1bn plans to digitise the court system.
Overseeing the reforms from 21 November will be the new chief executive of HM Court and Tribunal Service, Susan Acland-Hood; a civil servant who is currently director of enterprise and growth at the Treasury. 'There are few things more important than the rule of law, and justice well administered,' she said upon her appointment.
The MoJ has said it will publish its spending plans in April 2017 which gives it six months to get its house in order and address its budgeting issues. Under Liz Truss's stewardship, alongside the appointment of Acland-Hood and other new incumbents, a settled ministry has an opportunity to push on with its departmental objectives towards building a one nation justice system. Lawyers will be watching with interest '“ and not a small dose of scepticism.
Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal
firstname.lastname@example.org | @sportslawmatt