Britain’s justice system is badly failing most people who use courts while providing a gold standard of service to the wealthy, according to the justice secretary, Michael Gove.
In his first speech in his new role, Gove will signal a transformation in the government’s approach to the criminal and civil legal system, which has endured repeated cuts to its resources.
He will tell the Legatum Institute on Tuesday: “Even as we can collectively take pride in the fact that our traditions of liberty are generating future prosperity, we must also acknowledge that there is a need to do much more.
“Despite our deserved global reputation for legal services, not every element of our justice system is world-beating. While those with money can secure the finest legal provision in the world, the reality in our courts for many of our citizens is that the justice system is failing them. Badly.
“There are two nations in our justice system at present. On the one hand, the wealthy, international class who can choose to settle cases in London with the gold standard of British justice. And then everyone else, who has to put up with a creaking, outdated system to see justice done in their own lives.
“The people who are let down most badly by our justice system are those who must take part in it through no fault or desire of their own: victims and witnesses of crime, and children who have been neglected.”
While not indicating a U-turn on past legal aid cuts, Gove’s comments represent a radical shift in attitude from that of his predecessor, Chris Grayling. By acknowledging the justice system’s shortcomings, Gove is opening up the terms of the legal debate.
Gove’s main solution appears to be investment in technology to deliver improvements. That initiative has already begun. Last year the lord chief justice, Lord Thomas, and Grayling announced that more than £700m was to be invested in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service.
Gove will say: “I have seen barristers struggle to explain why a young woman who had the courage to press a rape charge should have had to wait nearly two years before her case was heard … I have heard too many accounts of cases derailed by the late arrival of prisoners, broken video links or missing paperwork.
“The waste and inefficiency inherent in such a system are obvious. But perhaps even more unforgivable is the human cost. It is the poorest in our society who are disproportionately the victims of crime, and who find themselves at the mercy of this creaking and dysfunctional system.
“Women who have the bravery to report domestic violence, assault and rape. Our neighbours who live in those parts of our cities scarred by drug abuse, gangs and people trafficking. These are the people who suffer twice – at the hands of criminals and as a result of our current criminal justice system.”
After six weeks’ of reading and discussions about his new brief, Gove will say that he is targeting unnecessary delays caused by too many court hearings. He will endorse the idea that more legal procedures should be dealt with by email and conference calls.
“The lord chief justice and his colleagues who provide leadership to our justice system are all convinced of, and convincing on, the case for reform,” Gove will say. “They have commissioned work which makes the case for quite radical change.”
On Monday Thomas said in a speech: “Successive cuts to legal aid and the escalating costs of lawyers [have] put access to justice out of the reach of the overwhelming majority of the population. No successful attempt had been made to use technology to address this issue.
“Since [the investment was announced last year], judges and the HMCTS have been working on proposals for reform. The business case is about to be presented to the Treasury explaining how the money would be invested.
“With a commitment to the resources in place, I hope that we can create a better court and tribunal system, with rules and procedures to ensure that the right work is carried out proportionately by the right judge, with a modernised court and tribunal estate and which uses technology to ensure that cases are dealt with efficiently, speedily and above all justly.”
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