Thursday, 10 December 2015

Michael Gove and the Power of the U-Turn

The term ‘u-turn’ is often used pejoratively in political commentary. It is used to suggest that a politician is easily swayed by public or media opinion and does not have the courage of his or her convictions. However, this overlooks the fact that the u-turn can in fact be positive – as exemplified by Michael Gove.

When it was announced during the Cabinet reshuffle that Michael Gove was to be the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the general opinion of many in the legal community – especially the legal aid community – was not one of optimism. Some warned not to pre-judge him; others were downright miserable, with memories of his time as Education Secretary and the visceral loathing he inspired in many teachers fresh in their minds. Few were enthused by the choice.

But Michael Gove has, slowly but surely, begun to win many of us over. Not by many radical new policies, but through the mechanism of the u-turn – or as some commentators have put it, by not being Chris Grayling.

During his short time as Lord Chancellor Michael Gove has overturned the following policies, all created or enthusiastically pursued by his predecessor Mr Grayling: he closed the ‘commercial arm’ of the Ministry of Justice, Just Solutions International, which was known for attempting to sell UK justice system expertise to brutal dictatorships; he overturned the prison ‘book ban’; he scrapped plans for a ‘secure college’, which was described by the Howard League as a ‘super-prison for children’; and most recently, he abolished the Criminal Courts Charge.

Every one of these u-turns was a positive step for justice and the rule of law. In addition, each of them was an entirely common-sense decision. With each policy overturn, Michael Gove is winning over the support of lawyers and other stakeholders in the legal profession; and he props up this support with the tone taken in speeches – one which emphasises the importance of the rule of law and of a functioning justice system and does not seek to decry his opponents as being self-interested.

Of course, one glaring omission remains: two tier Criminal Contracts. The Ministry of Justice has clung doggedly to this policy despite the endless setbacks, delays, protests, whistleblowers, and now what has been described as a ‘tidal wave’ of litigation, both in the form of public procurement challenges and a Judicial Review for which permission has just been granted.

Other commentators have laid out the potential consequences of the two tier contracts in great depth so these will not be examined here, except to say that many expect the limitation of access to justice; the end of large numbers of high street firms; and an increase in ‘conveyor-belt’ justice, with minimal time spent on each case.

So we ask Mr Gove: will you complete this final u-turn and stop pursuing two tier contracts, and by doing so show yourself to be a principled and just Lord Chancellor – one worthy of the title, despite lacking legal qualifications – and an upholder of the rule of law?

The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the firm or its partners.


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