Liz Truss, the first female lord chancellor, has been sworn into office amid a row over allegedly misogynistic comments questioning her suitability.
In the imposing surroundings of the lord chief justice’s court, Truss, the former environment secretary, pledged to respect the rule of law, defend the independence of the judiciary and provide adequate resources for the courts.
She is the third justice secretary and lord chancellor in a row to take on the dual roles who has not been a lawyer, though the previous two – Chris Grayling and Michael Gove – did not arrive amid a squall of complaints.
Her status as the first woman to occupy the state’s oldest legal office was put into doubt by the lord chief justice, John Thomas, whose welcoming speech pointed out that in 1253 Henry III’s queen, Eleanor of Provence, held the post of keeper of the great seal and exercised the power of lord chancellor.
Making a distinction between ownership of the seal and the office of lord chancellor, he said: “My lady, you are the first female custodian of the great seal since Eleanor of Provence was lady keeper. You are the first female lord chancellor. Today is a historic occasion.”
Truss will not be styled “lady chancellor”. To make the change would involve rewriting potentially thousands of statutes.
Lord Thomas stressed Truss’s previous distinguished record, from reading philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University, to becoming a management accountant, deputy director of the thinktank Reform, MP, education minister and environment secretary.
His words were in contrast to the disapproval voiced earlier this week by several prominent lawyers, including the chair of the justice select committee, the Conservative MP Bob Neill, who doubted whether she could “represent the interest of the judiciary” because she had been neither a lawyer nor a “senior member of the cabinet”. His views were dismissed by a source as “thinly veiled misogyny”.
Both Charles Falconer, the former Labour lord chancellor, and Edward Faulks, who quit as Tory justice minister as he accused Truss of failing to display the necessary independence required to defend the legal profession, have made similar criticisms.
Truss’s husband and two daughters, Liberty and Frances, sat in court as Truss took the oath wearing the heavy gold and black brocaded robe. By tradition, non-lawyers do not don a wig. In her speech, Truss promised to to be a “great supporter of reform and modernisation through the courts and tribunals”. She said: “As the first woman lord chancellor, I am proud to be part of our constantly evolving justice system.”
Her task will be challenging. As a non-ringfenced department, the Ministry of Justice has suffered successive deep cuts to its budgets and severe restrictions on the availability of legal aid. As justice secretary she will be responsible for producing – or quietly dropping – the long-awaited UK bill of rights aimed at redefining the UK’s relationship to the European convention on human rights.
A £700m court modernisation programme is under way, aimed at introducing digital working. Gove, Truss’s predecessor, also committed to following a radical expansion of problem-solving courts. Phil Bowen, director of the Centre for Justice Innovation which supports them, said: “We hope she’ll continue the encouraging progress in developing problem-solving courts across our criminal courts.”
This article was written by Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent, for theguardian.com on Thursday 21st July 2016 19.18 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010