The MoJ is in dire straits â€“ in every sense
What does the MoJ and an irritating Chumbawamba song have in common? Answer: when they get knocked down, they get right back up again, writes John van der Luit-Drummond
In the two years since joining Solicitors Journal, I have learnt that the scariest thing imaginable is a blank page where the foreword for the next issue should be. While stories compete with each other for prominence, deciding what to editorialise is a difficult task for the author of that page.
This week has been a particularly tough call. Do I cover MPs slamming Freshfields over the ScottishPower 'cashback guarantee' scandal; Lord Neuberger's acknowledgment that some lawyers scarcely make ends meet; the ongoing 'celebrity threesome' injunction saga; or evidence of the insurance industry's whiplash smokescreen?
While I could easily dedicate 500 words or more to each of these matters, there remains one issue I find myself begrudgingly returning to time and time again: how lawyers and the judiciary are playing an unending game of whack-a-mole with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and its disproportionate policies. The sheer bloody-mindedness of the government department knows no bounds. Just as one ideological, ill-thought out, or commercial driven decision is struck down, up pops another in its place.
This week, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that Chris Grayling's plan to limit civil legal aid to those lawfully resident in the UK was, to the surprise of 102 Petty France, unlawful. That Michael Gove persisted with this discriminatory test, when he had already reversed so many of his predecessor's flawed schemes, is embarrassing for the justice secretary. Yet the reason for his doggedness is clear: his department can't afford public access to the courts.
The ministry's permanent secretary, Richard Heaton, recently revealed that the MoJ is in dire funding straits, having requested an additional £427m from the Treasury. The black hole in its budget is due, in part, to a failure to collect income from controversial court fee increases. The £400k it wasted after abandoning the criminal legal aid reforms probably didn't help, either.
However, like an irritating Chumbawamba song, when the MoJ gets knocked down, it gets right back up again, with shockingly predictable results. In its latest attempt to 'reduce the burden on the taxpayer' and contribute to deficit reduction, the ministry has announced plans to raise fees in the immigration and asylum tribunals by 500 per cent.
The six-fold leap in fees, which would raise an additional £37m a year for the department, was described by the justice minister, Dominic Raab MP, as necessary for the UK to live within its means. As the Home Office promises to resettle 3,000 'at risk' children from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK, there is something sadly ironic that the minister for human rights is telling asylum seekers they must pay through the nose to get a fair hearing in the UK.
Rather than being a fundamental principle of a free, democratic society, the courts are set to become a money-making venture for the state. Unfortunately, with fees so high, only the well-heeled will be able to afford a hearing. What is the likelihood the new hike will simply deter legitimate claims as a similar increase had in the employment tribunal? It is almost as if the MoJ is assisting the home secretary keep those deemed undesirable out of the UK.
What a sorry state of affairs we find ourselves in by turning the courts into a cash cow. What is that all-too-often repeated government soundbite? 'We're all in this together.' Well, if 'this' means the destruction of the justice system, then yes, minister, we are.