It would be good to think Mr Gove’s statement is an acknowledgment that the court system as it is faced by families is cumbersome, slow and in need of reform. And that his comments represent an enduring commitment to protect the legal aid budget for families who need it. If only it did.
It’s true that for electoral reasons new governments tend to make unpopular announcements and changes early in the Parliamentary term, allowing their impact to have withered by election time. So a sigh of relief on legal aid is understandable.
But look carefully at the words used: ‘It makes more sense to deliver a more efficient court estate than, for example, make further big changes to the legal aid system.’
Is that a cast-iron commitment not to cut legal aid further? ‘Hell, no’, to paraphrase somebody whose name escapes me.
Nobody in touch with reality will expect a reversal of the legal aid cuts of recent years, but time will tell if the MoJ can definitely avoid making further reductions. The bloody battles that could lie ahead over proposed £12bn cuts to welfare spending might yet see a further axe pointed in the direction of the MoJ.
We’re told Mr Gove was removed from his Education Secretary post because he had become ‘toxic’ to education professionals. He’ll be mindful of the need to carefully choose which battles to pick with legal professionals, but the reference to lawyers contributing more pro-bono work could signal the start of one.
On the flipside the avowed wish to avoid further legal aid cuts will sweeten the pill, at least among those who visit websites aimed at legal professionals, like this one. Incidentally, for the avoidance of doubt of those legal professionals reading this, you’ll find very few families in need anywhere in the country complaining about wealthy lawyers contributing more. Why shouldn’t they?
It would also be good to think Mr Gove’s references to embracing technology in dispute resolution signalled a step forward into the twenty-first century. ‘Our courts are trapped in antiquated ways of working that leave individuals at the mercy of grotesque inefficiencies,’ he said.
But those of us who support families undergoing divorce and separation, and who have memories longer than a goldfish, will reflect on recent ‘grotesque inefficiencies’ coming from Whitehall itself.
The ‘Sorting Out Separation’ app, for example, funded by the DWP, was a costly flop with costs of £417,000 when questions were asked in Parliament a year ago.
And there was the MoJ’s spend of hundreds of thousands of public money on a profile-raising campaign for family mediation between January and March 2015 – an extremely expensive exercise, whose objectives could surely have been met far more efficiently for a fraction of the cost.
Nonetheless, if Mr Gove can bring modernity to the MoJ – and couple it with sensible efficiency – professional mediators won’t be the only ones shouting ‘hurrah.’
At the time of writing the new Minister in Mr Gove’s team responsible for family mediation, Caroline Dinenage, is yet to speak publicly of her plans or aspirations for the profession I represent. However, she has signalled to me in correspondence her intention to meet with the Family Mediation Council and, as a member organisation, National Family Mediation looks forward to that meeting which we trust will be the first of many.
If Ms Dinenage can be further persuaded of the merits of family mediation as a quicker, cheaper, less confrontational way for families to settle disputes – which produces better outcomes for children and young people – then who knows, the next MoJ Ministerial speech we read could be trumpeting family mediation, pledging to ensure legal aid remains available for it during the course of this Parliament. Ms Dinenage’s MOJ predecessor, Simon Hughes, banged the drum. We hope that in time the new Ministerial team will do the same.