The Lib Dem's man in the Ministry of Justice has been rediscovering his principles of late. Simon Hughes has been taking journalists around progressive prisons, demanding a reduction in the number of people we send behind bars and focusing on women inmates. For a man who a year ago would not allow a cigarette paper between his position and that of Chris Grayling, it has been a welcome affirmation of his liberal credentials ahead of the election.
But is Hughes' newfound political determination bearing fruit? We ask because the MoJ still appears not to have started a review he ordered five months ago. In September, he called for an urgent review of the way legal aid cuts had impacted on children following a scathing report by children’s commissioner Maggie Atkinson.
He told the Guardian:
"I have asked the Ministry of Justice to review the findings in this report. We have had to make difficult decisions to protect legal aid for the long term but this shouldn't be at the expense of the rights of children. If there are gaps in the new system I am determined they are addressed urgently."
All very commendable. So it's strange that now, several months later, the review has not taken place. A parliamentary question tabled last week asked:
"To ask the secretary of state for justice, whether his department is conducting a review of children's access to legal aid."
Here's the answer, from justice minister Shailesh Vara:
"The MoJ is not currently conducting a specific review of children's access to legal aid. As the minister of state for justice and civil liberties set out on February 5th, in his answer to the honourable member’s previous question on this matter, the government continues at all times to review the operation of the legal aid system. Ministers have considered, and will continue to consider, all representations and evidence about the impact of LASPO [the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act] on young people."
So apparently there's no review going on after all. Either he lied, which is unlikely, or his department simply ignored his request.
If Hughes is irritated by his inability to get his department to carry out even his most modest demands, he can content himself with the knowledge that it is hardly better at justifying its own agenda. Another parliamentary question asked Chris Grayling what estimate he had made of the number of judicial reviews which had been granted on minor technicalities. One would expect the department to know such things. After all, Grayling had insisted repeatedly and at length that charities and campaign groups, acting as a fifth column for the Labour party, were using these minor technical judicial reviews to suffocate government.
So it's strange that the department has no idea what the answer is.
"The government has not made an estimate of the number of applications for judicial review which are granted on procedural defects or minor technicalities. Judicial review applications are not recorded in an accessible and reliable electronic form, but rather in paper case files which would need to be manually searched and as such there is no central figure. However, those involved in judicial reviews, including government departments, local authorities and businesses, are fully aware of the ways in which the judicial review process can be misused."
It is a remarkable admission. Judicial review supposedly had to be reformed because it was being used for minor technicalities. But the government does not know how many minor technicalities were leading to successful judicial reviews, which rather undercuts their argument. If one were very cynical one might suggest that the minor technicalities argument was spurious nonsense cooked up to justify an attack on judicial scrutiny.