Chris Grayling is the first politically-appointed Lord Chancellor who has never been a lawyer. Photo: Getty
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Operation Cotton and the 23 pages which skewered Chris Grayling’s legal aid reforms

A judge has halted a high-profile fraud trial after the defendants were left unrepresented because of legal aid cuts.

Did you hear the “snap”?

If you were in Southwark Crown Court at 11:30 yesterday morning, you would definitely have heard it.

That was when His Honour Judge Leonard QC delivered a ruling (pdf) which in 23 pages put Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s major legal aid reforms in jeopardy.

The judge effectively terminated the prosecution of five men for allegedly stealing over £5m from UK investors. The reason? The government had failed in its duty to ensure the defendants were represented.

The barristers who were supposed to represent the men pulled out of the case after the Ministry of Justice cut legal aid fees for complex cases by 30 per cent. They were told if they refused to work under the new rates their existing contracts would be terminated.

Back to that “snap”. The UK has an unwieldy but remarkably flexible unwritten constitution. Think of that scene where Gulliver wakes up to find he is bound by hundreds of tiny little ropes. In the UK, those in power are also bound by tiny ropes, woven over centuries to prevent them oppressing the people.

It was those ropes which stopped fascism and communism succeeding here. As George Orwell said in 1941, the “totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power, has never taken root”.

But one of those ropes just snapped.

It began to fray almost a decade ago. That was when the Constitutional Reform Act fundamentally changed the ancient role of Lord Chancellor. For hundreds of years the Lord Chancellor had been a judge or senior lawyer. A key part of his job was speaking up in Parliament for the rule of law.

No more. Now the Lord Chancellor is a political appointee and is responsible for managing the criminal justice system. He need not know anything about law.

It took a while for the change to be felt. Jack Straw and Ken Clarke, the first two of the new breed, were former lawyers who understood the system they were entrusted to protect.

But that changed with Chris Grayling, the first non-lawyer to hold the post in over three centuries. The result has been constitutional carnage, wrought on three fronts.

First, there have been swingeing cuts to legal aid. Legal aid is often described the NHS for justice. Providing representation for poor people in proceedings which could affect their lives as much as a serious illness has been a proud tradition. But facing huge cuts to the budget, lawyers have been unable to generate the kind of sympathy that has kept cuts away from doctors and nurses.

Second, human rights laws have been under attack. Grayling is soon to unveil plans to curtail the role of the European Convention on Human Rights, a system created over 60 years ago largely by Conservative lawyers. Lawyers who speak up against the proposals are branded self-interested fat cats, even though they are amongst the lowest earners in the profession.

Third, there has been an assault on Judicial Review, which lets ordinary people can take public authorities to court to ensure they act within the law. The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) said last week that evidential basis for the Government’s proposals is “weak”.

The JCHR also said the government’s approach “expose[d] the conflict inherent in the combined roles of the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice”. It criticised Grayling’s “energetic” and “politically partisan” pursuit of reforms which “place direct limits on the ability of the courts to hold the executive to account”.

The most telling evidence to that committee was Grayling’s own. In an attempt to show how seriously he takes protecting the rule of law, he said he would never criticise judges except “if I am directly involved in a case, I disagree with the judge and plan to appeal it”. How can the minister fighting hundreds of prison-related judicial review claims also be responsible for reforming the system?

So the rope frayed. Then, yesterday, it snapped. The government argued that it should be allowed an adjournment, to some time in 2015, so that representation could be found. No, said the judge. Because to allow the State a long delay to put right its “failure to provide the necessary resources to permit a fair trial” would, he ruled, be “a violation of the process of this court”.  

The judgment may be appealed. But even so, a number of other serious fraud trials are at risk. Crimes will go unpunished and victims will be denied justice.

Some good may come of this. The public may begin to realise that the Lord Chancellor’s reform programme, motivated by ideology not analysis, is putting the rule of law at risk.

We cannot afford for another of those ropes to snap.

Adam Wagner is a barrister specialising in human rights and public law. He is the founding editor of UK Human Rights Blog.

Adam Wagner is a barrister at 1 Crown Office Row chambers and editor of UK Human Rights Blog

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder