Regretfully, I had to change my plans this weekend as our village’s Brexit street party, to celebrate the country’s liberation from vassalage and rebirth as an independent nation was inexplicably cancelled. Whether a new date will be fixed for the party, remains to be seen. Goodness knows what I will do in the meantime with the 200 yards of Union Jack bunting and case of Victory gin sitting in my garage. Brexit apparently does not mean Brexit. Or possibly Brexit means Brexit but not quite yet.
Politics has now entered an interesting phase in this country. One senses that anything could happen. By sheer persistence, or exhaustion Mrs May may force her Brexit deal through the Houses of Parliament as the scale of opposition dwindles. Or she may not, and in any event has signalled that within a few months she no longer expects to be Prime Minister. There may be a second referendum or a general election. Even civil disorder is on the cards, as the referendum result is seen to be “stolen” by the political elite.
I have enjoyed following the twists and turns of one of the great political dramas of our time, reading the Daily Mail, Guardian and Times, to obtain a range of views. But now I am starting to feel slightly tired of it all. The political discourse is resembling the same old cabbage soup, heated up and presented again without enthusiasm, and I am thinking of restricting my news intake to a single website which seems to have its finger on the pulse: https://www.thedailymash.co.uk/politics/the-wetherspoons-customers-guide-to-a-no-deal-brexit-20190124181714.
Suppose however, that the government does fall and there is a general election? What will this mean for the civil justice system? I have been looking at the party manifestos from the 2017 election to provide clues. The Conservative one can be found here: The Conservative Party Manifesto 2017. It is extremely thin on detail. Most of what it does say, is to do with the criminal justice system:
Reforming the justice system
The last seven years have seen historic falls in crime and improvements in public safety.We will build on that record. A strong criminal justice system requires a good legal system. We cherish our strong and independent judiciary. Our courts and judiciary are respected as the finest in the world. Legal services are a major British export and underpin our professional services sector. We will continue to modernise our courts, improving court buildings and facilities and
making it easier for people to resolve disputes and secure justice. We will take action to make it harder for people to enter the country if they have a criminal conviction and will implement satellite tracking for every foreign national offender subject to an outstanding deportation order or deportation proceedings.
Prisons should be places of reform and rehabilitation, but we should always remember that incarceration is punishment for people who commit serious crimes. The £15 billion annual cost to society of reoffending shows we have so much more to do to make the penal system work better. Prisons must become places of safety, discipline and hard work, places where people are helped to turn their lives around. They should help prisoners learn English, maths and the work skills they need to get a job when they leave prison, whilst providing the help prisoners require to come off drugs and deal with mental health problems. We will invest over £1 billion to modernise the prison estate, replacing the most dilapidated prisons and creating 10,000 modern prison places. We will reform the entry requirements, training, management and career paths of prison officers. We will create a new legal framework for prisons, strengthening the inspectorate and ombudsman to provide sharper external scrutiny. Community punishments do not do enough to prevent crime and break the cycle of persistent offending. So we will create a national community sentencing framework that punishes offenders and focuses on the measures that have a better chance of turning people around and preventing crime, such as curfews and orders that tackle drug and alcohol abuse. We will introduce dedicated provision for women offenders.
The entry in the Labour party manifesto, is slightly longer and covers more ground, but is still very vague. It can be found here: The Labour Party Manifesto 2017:
We all need access to the justice system to protect us from those who would deny us our rights. Labour will set out to make Britain a fair society with liberties for all, governed by the rule of law, and in
which the law is enforced equally. The Conservatives threaten our Human Rights Act and may withdraw
us from the European Convention of Human Rights. Labour will retain the Human Rights Act. Justice is all too often denied. Too many ordinary people know this. There are football fans, trade unionists, environmental activists and people living with disabilities whose personal experiences provide first-hand testimony. Labour will hold public inquiries into historic injustices. We will open inquiries into Orgreave and blacklisting. We will release all papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24 trials and the 37 Cammell Laird shipyard workers. Justice today has become the preserve of the rich. Budget cuts mean that thousands are deprived of fair resolutions. Justice is eroded by the poor decisions of privatised assessments, by the withdrawal of legal aid, by the removal of appeal rights, by the delays arising from overcrowded courts and by the costs of fees. Eligibility for legal aid has been withdrawn across a whole range of areas. This has had disturbing consequences for the delivery of justice. Democracy is founded upon the rule of law and judicial independence. We will also review the judicial appointments process, to ensure a judiciary that is more representative of our society. Labour will immediately re-establish early advice entitlements in the Family Courts. The shameful consequences of withdrawal have included a requirement for victims of domestic abuse to pay doctors for certification of their injuries. Labour’s plans will remove that requirement. At the same time, we will legislate to prohibit the cross examination of victims of domestic violence by their abuser in certain circumstances. We will reintroduce funding for the preparation of judicial review cases. Judicial review is an important way of holding government to account. There are sufficient safeguards to discourage unmeritorious cases.
We will review the legal aid means tests, including the capital test for those on income-related benefits.
Labour will consider the reinstatement of other legal aid entitlements after receiving the final recommendations of the Access to Justice Commission led by Lord Bach. The justice system can be bewildering and intimidating. There are many improvements that can be made both to the law and to the court processes. Labour will introduce a no-fault divorce procedure. Labour government will consult on establishing an environmental tribunal with simplified procedures to hear challenges to unlawful government decisions, like those made on the air quality strategy, without engaging in prohibitively expensive processes. Labour will not prohibit the courts from raising monies to provide services, but we will introduce a ratio to establish the maximum difference between actual costs
and charges levied. Labour will continue to extend the use of technology in our court service where it enhances access to justice, timely dispute resolution and efficient administration.
There is little illumination to be drawn from either document, and any new manifesto in 2019, I suspect will contain less rather than more detail. Instead, such legal reform as is coming forward seems to be driven by the civil service, rather than by the politicians. This includes the latest work on the expansion of fixed costs in civil cases.
With relatively little fanfare, a consultation has now opened, the key document of which can be found here: Fixed Recoverable Costs in Civil Cases Consultation Document. This document deals with the proposed expansion of fixed recoverable costs to a far wider range of litigation than they apply to at the moment.
It is an interesting development: Jackson II seemed to have been quietly placed in the circular filing cabinet, whilst more momentous events unfolded, at the Ministry of Justice.
It may of course, yet come to nothing, as the next three months are going to be a very long time in politics.