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MoJ: Is the new boss same as the old boss?

Liz Truss is 'sceptical' on problem-solving courts but stands firm on Bill of Rights commitment, writes John van der Luit-Drummond

22 August 2016

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What a few days it has been for the UK's new justice secretary. Just over a month since becoming the UK's first female Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss has finally, and firmly, grasped the dual nettles of justice reform and human rights that she inherited from her predecessors, Michael Gove and Chris Grayling. Or has she?

Reports on parliament's usually quiet summer recess have suggested the prime minister, Theresa May, asked her new justice chief to rethink the Conservative's manifesto pledge with speculation that she was even willing to drop the policy altogether following the public's vote to leave the EU.

While learned legal opinion persists that the as-yet-unseen British Bill of Rights remains hastily scribbled out on the back of a fag packet, one Whitehall source recently told the Times that 'the Bill is ready' but that other important issues, like prison reform, may ultimately take priority.

However, speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Truss rubbished any suggestion that the Bill of Rights, rather than the Human Rights Act, was for the scrap heap. 'We are committed to that. It is a manifesto pledge,' she said. 'We are looking very closely at the details but we have a manifesto pledge to deliver that.'

Her response mirrored previous Ministry of Justice (MoJ) statements that the Bill will be set out 'in due course' and will be 'fully consulted on'. Still, few lawyers seem convinced, remembering, as we all do, the government's promise to introduce the biggest shake up of human rights law within 100 days of winning the 2015 general election. It's now been over a year and that fag packet is still nowhere in sight.

Truss's clarification of MoJ policy came 24 hours after a controversial Mail Online article called out the 'lunacy' of this country's 'broken asylum system'. In it, an anonymous judge, or someone purporting to be one, explained how 'rascals' have been using article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights to remain resident in the UK.

Amid the debate over whether or not the piece was written by an actual judge, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph will continue to dog the Human Rights Act, keeping it never far from the headlines and guaranteeing the government is forced to return to the matter again and again. In fact, the only thing that seems to work Mail readers up into more of a frenzy than 'illegals' and 'human rights do-gooders' is any suggestion that the government is going soft on criminals.

Step forward Ms Truss to once again quell the fears of middle England. An article in last weekend's Observer reported that the widely anticipated overhaul of the criminal justice system, with the introduction of US-style 'problem-solving courts', was to be postponed as it looked 'too much like being nice to criminals'. If true it will come as a huge disappointment to those lawyers and organisations who had called upon the new Lord Chancellor to continue Gove's 'lovely idea'.

The MoJ's response to the story was far from heartening, leading Solicitors Journal regular Jonathan Black to posit that perhaps Truss is preparing to show her tough on crime credentials ahead of October's Tory party conference. If her previous performance in front of Conservative party members is anything to go by then we can expect a barnstorming performance. Any takers on the Human Rights Act, 'rascal' immigrants, or 'soft justice' courts being called 'a disgrace'?

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal
john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk @JvdLD

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