Speech to the Magistrates Association
Justice Secretary Michael Gove spoke at the Magistrates Association National Council on 3 December 2015.
Sometimes it’s the most innocent questions which are the most difficult.
Just last month I was speaking to a politically engaged but friendly audience and I was asked one straightforward - indeed generous - question which had me - temporarily - incapable of answering.
For fear of the consequences.
You were explicit as Education Secretary that you wanted to learn from other high-performing jurisdictions such as Finland and Poland, Singapore and Shanghai, which countries are models for you as Justice Secretary?
I paused - for what must have seemed an uncomfortably long time - before confessing my terrible secret,
Well actually, the country I think I can learn most from about justice is England.
In making my confession I fear I may have been guilty of a double sin.
Any Scot acknowledging the pre-eminence of England in any field is clearly opening himself to criticism.
And any politician who wants to make the case for reform must necessarily run a risk if he draws inspiration from England - a country caricatured as hog-tied by traditions, circumscribed by precedents and held back by its old-fashioned institutions.
But far from believing progress towards a more just society is impeded by too much respect for our traditions, I think it’s enhanced by more respect for our traditions.
Traditions such as freedom from arbitrary detention and freedom of speech, the presumption of innocence and an adversarial justice system, respect for parliamentary sovereignty and trust in a healthy, independent, locally-rooted and powerful magistracy.
Which is why it is such a pleasure to be here today.
Because I want to communicate a very simple message - thank you.
I am deeply grateful for the service you all give.
The country owes you all an enormous amount. You choose to use your precious spare time to serve the public. Your dedication, commitment to upholding the rule of law and commitment to justice, make our country a better, safer, fairer place. And the sheer diversity of backgrounds from which you come is a great strength.
I am a great admirer of our country’s legal professionals.
Whether solicitors or barristers, judges sitting in courts or tribunals, civil servants in HMCTS HQ or legal advisers in the field, we all benefit from the professionalism of those who have made a career of the law.
But the rule of law depends on more than just good lawyers, justice rests on more than just a tradition of professional excellence. The involvement of lay people in the administration of justice is critical. The principle that guilt or innocence should be decided in Crown Court trials by a jury of our peers is an essential safeguard of liberty. And the principle that justice should be dispensed from the magistrates bench by representatives of the local community, not employees of the central state, is an equally important guarantor of our traditional freedoms.
That is why I want to make sure that magistrates play the strongest possible role in the delivery of justice. And I want to work with you and the senior judiciary to look at how we can make the most of the opportunities for reform that lie ahead.
Last week, you will have seen the Spending Review announcement that my department has received a £700m investment towards reforming and modernising our courts and tribunals system.
This is the biggest investment in our courts service for a generation. It also comes despite the continuing need for fiscal consolidation. It gives us the opportunity to ensure the magistracy enjoy not just new facilities but new powers. And I want you to be fully engaged in shaping those facilities and those powers.
Now of course some of you might say - we’ve heard this sort of flannel before - where’s the evidence this guy actually listens.
Well, all I can say is that, in the six months I’ve been in office so far, when the magistracy has made its views on particular policies crystal clear I have been listening hard.
Take the Criminal Courts Charge.
The intention behind the policy was honourable - to make sure that those who impose costs on the criminal justice system make a contribution to those costs wherever possible.
If you’ve deliberately broken the law, if the taxpayer has to shell out to ensure justice is done, then there can clearly be a case for the court imposing a financial order.
But whenever I have had the opportunity to talk to magistrates over the last six months the Criminal Courts Charge has been raised and in almost every case it has been criticised.
I won’t rehearse or repeat all the criticisms now. You know the arguments well. They were very effectively summarised in a typically thoughtful report by the Justice Select Committee.
So I have today laid in Parliament an amending statutory instrument which will mean that - from the 24th of December - the criminal courts charge will no longer be imposed.
It is, however, important to stress that I have not taken this decision in isolation from consideration of the whole range of penalties, fines and charges imposed in our courts.
So, today I can also announce that the Ministry of Justice will be reviewing the entire structure, and purpose, of court-ordered financial impositions for offenders, with a view to considering options for simplification and improvement.
The current array of sanctions and penalties is complex and confusing.
I would therefore like to bring greater simplicity and clarity and I would also like to achieve three other goals.
Firstly, I would like to give the judiciary - including of course the magistracy - greater discretion in setting financial orders.
Second I would like to explore how we can make financial penalties a more effective tool in helping to deliver improved non-custodial sentences.
And my third hope is that we can properly - and fairly - ensure that money raised through financial penalties plays an appropriate - and sustainable - role in supporting taxpayers to meet the costs of running the courts.
This review of course sits alongside the broader programme of reform we are bringing to the courts.
The central aim of our reforms is to make justice swifter and more certain.
In nearly every area of life, we’ve come to expect that transactions which used to take weeks can be accomplished in seconds. Cheques and paper documents have been replaced by contactless payment cards and smartphone apps. Protracted meetings and endless correspondence have been supplanted by email and sms exchanges.
People, businesses and organisations have transformed the way they work and the expectations people have of public services have also altered. If we’re going to serve the public properly, and maintain the precious advantages our legal traditions give us, then we need to modernise the way our courts work.
HMCTS has already begun to change how our courts work, not least through the increased use of video links, but we must go further, faster.
We need to make far better use of technology and buildings to provide easier access to a more responsive system – with swifter processes and more proportionate services.
We also need to explore how technology can help us provide justice in a wider range of buildings that we currently use. Temporary and community courts can help us bring justice closer to people and I would welcome your thoughts about how we can be much more flexible in where we dispense justice.
We have a duty to offer more convenient, less intimidating ways for citizens to interact with the justice system whilst maintaining the authority of the court for serious cases.
I know there has been much recent discussion, and indeed much previous work, looking at magistrates’ sentencing powers. I am interested in these proposals and would welcome your views.
And I would also welcome your views on how we can enhance the power of courts to help rehabilitate offenders.
I recently visited the US to look at the innovative ways in which the judiciary were taking an active role in overseeing the rehabilitation of the offenders they had sentenced.
I was impressed by the potential of these “problem solving” courts to contribute to crime reduction and personal redemption.
I know all of you care a great deal about the rehabilitation of the people who appear in front of you in court and want to play a bigger part in that process.
The Lord Chief Justice and I have discussed how we can learn from the experience of problem solving courts in other jurisdictions and we are both keen to look at what more we can do in this area.
But even as I am eager to press ahead with reform, I am, as I said at the beginning of my remarks, aware that change has to be introduced in a way that respects our best traditions.
It’s a great honour - and a heavy responsibility - to be Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor in the country with the best justice system in the world. I can make that claim because of the very special quality of the people who administer justice in this country every day. That is why I - and indeed all the citizens of this country - are in your debt.