The justice secretary and lord chancellor, David Gauke MP, faced a grilling from the Justice Committee at its meeting last week
(7 March 2018). In a series of probing questions put to him by Conservative MP Alex Chalk, the justice secretary admitted that the post-legislative review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) would be delayed.
It was the first time Gauke had appeared before the committee since taking office in January 2018. The session was dominated by questions about the crisis in the prison service. The justice secretary expressed agreement with John Howell MP (Conservative) that the ‘levels of violence and self-harm were unacceptable’ and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) needed to ‘weaken the grip of serious organised gangs’ in prisons. He said the MoJ was continuing to recruit the extra 2,500 prison staff a previous justice secretary, Liz Truss, had committed to.
As part of initial questions, Chalk, who is a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, asked Gauke if he agreed that ‘access to justice is a fundamental pillar upon which our international reputation is built’. The justice secretary responded that ‘it’s part of what we are’ and that ‘we want people to have access to justice’, but he seemed to qualify this by saying the MoJ had to make ‘some difficult decisions in terms of public spending’.
Former criminal law barrister Chalk also expressed the concern that the MoJ had not commissioned any original research as part of the LASPO review and asked whether ‘we can be satisfied this is being treated with the rigour it deserves’, to which Gauke replied that the review ‘will consult with a wide range of external stakeholders’. Chalk warned that there was a ‘danger of repeating the same mistakes given the slim evidence base on which LASPO was originally based’.
A Labour member of the committee, Bambos Charalambous MP, asked Gauke if the government intended to look at the lack of early advice provision as part of the review. The justice secretary said that, at this stage, they ‘don’t want to be drawn into how they are going to respond’.
Questioned by Chalk about the timetable for the review, Gauke replied that it was ‘likely to take longer’ than the promised summer recess deadline (24 July). He assured the committee that ‘we don’t want to be slipping into next year’, and that the revised timetable for the review would be published soon.
A previous MoJ minister, Sir Oliver Heald QC, had announced a timetable for the review in January 2017 (see February 2017 Legal Action
7). These plans, however, were derailed by the general election.
According to LAG director Steve Hynes, guidance from the Cabinet Office on the legislative process states that post-legislative scrutiny should normally commence within three to five years of a bill receiving royal assent. ‘LASPO became law on 1 May 2012,’ he said. ‘The timetable for this review has slipped beyond what is normal practice and it’s difficult to judge if this is down to the disarray caused by Brexit or disinterest on behalf of ministers.’