Government spin on legal affairs must be put to the test

Edward Garnier MP is concerned that the Government's access to justice policies will make independent lawyers inaccessible to the public.

Despite the minor excitement over the title of the bill that the Government is bringing forward in the forthcoming session, it seems certain that a fat bill will emerge from the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) before December.

It is going to be called the Access to Justice Bill and it will have its second reading in the Lords before we break for Christmas.

At least this legislation will keep the Lord Chancellor busy with the important issues of human rights, rather than being distracted by wallpaper and breeches, which demeans both himself and his office.

Although I, as the Opposition Spokesman on Legal Affairs in the Commons, am concerned about the way in which this Labour Lord Chancellor has conducted himself, what concerns me more is the almost total silence on legal affairs from politicians on all sides of the House, with one or two honourable exceptions such as barrister Dominic Grieve, the Tory MP for Beaconsfield, and Austin Mitchell, the Labour (but not New Labour) MP for Great Grimsby.

Of course I accept, as does my counterpart, Geoff Hoon, recently promoted to minister of state at the LCD, that the next general election is not going to be decided on what this department has done in the preceding parliament. That may partly explain why Mr Hoon was keen to move to another department this summer, where he could attract more political attention and play a central role in the Government's fortunes.

But I and my colleagues in the House of Commons can expose the deficiencies in and the dangers of government legislation. This government, with its huge, silent, but increasingly sullen, majority can do just about what it wants to our courts and the provision of legal services.

It can pretend that by wanting to call a bill “The Modernisation of Justice Bill” it is displaying an attitude of mind that chimes with the public's desire to see these goals achieved.

Because the spin doctors can get the press to repeat their slogans and the whips persuade backbenchers not to speak or think about them, the substance of what they are doing is never examined or tested. And anyway, whoever heard of a politician winning votes by speaking up for lawyers?

Access to Justice Bill? Already the Government has diminished access to justice with its legal aid reforms. It will not be improved by much that the bill promises. Woolf without money is a disaster waiting to happen. The right to jury trial could well be blown away. Rights of audience are a barrister's privilege and out of date so they must go, but where will the punter find the independent lawyer in 10 years' time?

Why should I exaggerate when the facts are emerging, however quietly, before us?