Criminal JusticeSpeeches

Alex Chalk – 2023 Speech at the Lord Mayor of London’s Dinner for HM Judges

The speech made by Alex Chalk, the Secretary of State for Justice, at the Mansion House in London on 18 July 2023.

My Lord Mayor, Lady Mayoress, my Lord Chief Justice, members of His Majesty’s judiciary, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you, Lord Chief Justice for your kind words. It is of course a special honour to be speaking to you as Lord Chancellor. But can we all please spare a thought for at least three of your number here who led me at the Bar and are now feeling really, really old…

So much has happened for all of us in the last decade. In 2013, I was at the Bar at 6KBW College Hill. It was a different time entirely; as a busy practitioner I confess I didn’t always pore over every dissenting Court of Appeal judgment; unaccountably, I find them absolutely compelling today.

And it was in 2013 that I was selected as the Conservative candidate for Cheltenham. It wasn’t going terribly well. Door after door was opened by people who said they knew who I was, but added that although I was better than my brother, they weren’t going to vote for David Miliband either. When I fed that back to HQ they came up with what they assured me was a brilliant plan. They would send down the then-Mayor of London to boost my profile. Even then, I was aware that this could be a high-risk strategy.

I thank Lord Burnett for his speech.

The Lord Chief Justice has shown himself ready to serve in so many ways. He attended a Commonwealth conference in 2022. On the second night the hosts announced that the judges would be called to dance by rank, starting with Chief Justices, and starting with England & Wales.

My source tells me that Lord Burnett did not hesitate to get to his feet, to the delight of the hundreds watching on. His Private Secretary still has the footage available in, I am told, clear contravention of a judicial order. There will be an auction at the end of the evening.

Few in peacetime have been tested as Lord Burnett was. He showed leadership to help keep the courts open during Covid, in a judgement that was vindicated. He has promoted transparency, in particular broadcasting of sentencing remarks in the Crown Court. He has increased engagement with the public and students. And he has championed modernisation, digitisation, diversity and recruitment.

MPs and peers of all parties hold him in the highest regard. Parliament, his profession and indeed the nation owe him a debt of gratitude and wish him well for whatever comes next.

I want also to thank those of you who sat during the pandemic.

You did so despite the fact that many of you, I’m sure, will have come under pressure from concerned friends and family not to come into court, not to put yourselves at risk. ‘Why you?’ they will have said; to which the only answer was that fate put you there, at that unique moment of jeopardy for our justice system and yours was the task to do.

Thank you for all you did. Covid has a long tail when it comes to the courts, and plainly there are still significant pressures as the system heals – from family law (public and private) to the employment tribunal. But let us remember that those pressures would have been immeasurably greater without your efforts.

I want to turn to some other points, and I’m pleased to say that No.10 were so delighted that I was attending this event that they even helped me draft this part of speech. So, turning to our five priorities…

I recently visited Japan for the G7 Justice Ministers Conference. It was immediately clear just how strong the relationship is between the UK and Japan, and the importance that is attached by that country and indeed the ASEAN countries (from Malaysia to Singapore) to our playing our part in the Indo-Pacific.

Now, that importance isn’t wholly or even mainly underpinned by the strong and growing military and industrial alliance through our collaboration with Japan on the Global Combat Air Programme – important though that is. Instead, absolutely at the heart of our offer to the Indo-Pacific and indeed to the world is our strong legal capabilities and tradition of upholding the rule of law – as demonstrated by Japan’s enthusiasm to single out the UK to sign a memorandum of cooperation on law and justice, including on our legal sectors.

Because it is well understood internationally that our country has historically contributed a great deal, perhaps more than any other, to the development of private international law through the Hague Conventions, with their network of jurisdiction and mutual enforcement arrangements. It is also acknowledged that the UK has the biggest legal sector in Europe, second only worldwide to the United States, a sector that continues to thrive.

And our international counterparts recognise that our common law system enjoys an endless potential for modernisation to respond to the latest trends, technologies and dispute flashpoints. The common law is ancient, yes, and yet relentlessly contemporary.

Against that backdrop, we will of course assert this advantage, we will press for strengthened cooperation and exchange in legal services. That will help grow our economy and generate extraordinary opportunities for young people from this jurisdiction to go as far as their talents will take them – promoting the social mobility agenda which brought me into politics. Thank you to the judiciary, the Bar Council and the Law Society for what you are doing to support this endeavour.

But in truth it’s about more than that. Despite the undoubted commercial opportunities, we will prioritise this agenda because every time we advance a PIL agreement, every time we improve access to a foreign legal market, every time we secure that exchange event between lawyers we strengthen the international rules-based order. In the Indo-Pacific and in the wider world, we must recognise that the argument for the rule of law is far from settled. That part of the world, as well as being the crucible of global economic growth over the coming decades, is also the crucible of competing visions. It is in some ways the epicentre of a global contest. And in that contest, free societies have to demonstrate that the rule of law matters – and ultimately it makes societies safer, and citizens freer and better off.

So we will continue to speak up for the rule of law. We will make clear in the context of Russia’s unlawful full-scale invasion of Ukraine that might is not always right, that the international rules-based order counts for something, and that there are consequences for those who violate recognised borders.

And we are putting resources behind our words. Quite apart from being the second largest provider of military support to Ukraine after the US, we have delivered war crimes investigation training to Ukrainian police on behalf of the ICC, we have provided training for Ukrainian judges led, by Sir Howard Morrison KC, and allocated additional funding to support ICC investigations.

But as well as advocating the rule of law abroad, we must show focus and vigilance to maintain it here at home. Although deep-rooted in our society, it must never be taken for granted. It requires care and effort to keep it in good health – particularly in an era of social media and disinformation which throws up new, dystopian misinformed challenges.

So, the starting-point is to make the case for why it matters – to bring it to life in terms that are accessible to all. In my swearing-in speech I stated that the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and access to justice aren’t quaint, obscure notions to pay lip-service to – but the essential building blocks of a safe, fair and prosperous society – as relevant today as in any year of the modern era.

And what access to justice and independence of the judiciary mean in practice is walking out of court as an advocate or litigant having lost, and knowing deep down that despite your disappointment you have been heard by judges of formidable intellect and unimpeachable integrity. And you have had a full and fair hearing. That is inestimably precious.

So what must we do to nurture it?

Well, in the first place, show respect to its key custodians. The Government is pleased to have been able to accept in full the PRB pay recommendations, including the Senior Salaries Review Body recommendation. In doing so, the Government is sending I hope a clear message about its deep regard for the judiciary, and the value attached to the essential work that you do.

Second, I believe very strongly that we must invest in the infrastructure of the courts estate. The physical condition of the buildings that discharge justice matters. It is difficult to uphold the dignity and authority of the law, important by the way to promote the small matter of compliance with court orders, when there is a bucket catching drips in the corner of the room.

It is equally difficult as a practitioner to feel proud of the profession you have worked hard to join as you open your case to the jury in Isleworth (as I did in the past) and know that all anyone is thinking about is the overwhelming smell of damp in the carpets. (Those have been replaced by the way).

Poor maintenance impacts capacity of course – but it also corrodes morale. And we need that morale, not least to unwind the pressures Covid created. It is only by sustaining and growing pride in the justice system and pride in the legal profession that we will continue to retain the practitioners we need and attract the brightest and the best to join. Every improvement in infrastructure sends out a ripple of confidence, through robing rooms, chambers and into university lecture theatres; and it enhances the overall attractiveness of the profession. Notwithstanding the £185m spent on court maintenance in the last two years, and the extra £38m in the last financial year for redecorations and deep cleans, we can go further. It’s a point I raised on my first day in office. I have prioritised it since, and I look forward to being able to say a little more in due course.

Third, we must be vigilant in clamping down on those who would misuse our courts, absorbing capacity with bogus lawsuits cynically designed to intimidate journalists and campaigners, and stifle freedom of speech. So I am pleased that we have acted through amendments to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill to create an early dismissal process in respect of spurious SLAPPS which are connected to financial fraud and corruption – the overwhelming majority of actions.

Fourth, we should take every opportunity to promote access to justice. And let me say that legal aid plays an important role in delivering that. So I am pleased that we have published our response to the Legal Aid Means Test Review, which when fully implemented will lead to over six million more people falling within the scope of legal aid.

All this we do and more. As a junior minister in the department, I devised ELSA (Early Legal Support and Advice) as the umbrella term for a suite of proposals to improve access to justice. Politics is the art of the possible, and we won’t get everything done overnight. But I will give it my all.

Fifth, we must abandon for good the outdated complacency that assumes all those who rise to positions of responsibility in our country are experts (or at least experienced) in the inner workings of our constitution. We should dismiss what has come to feel like a conspiracy of romantic hopes that through their education and wider upbringing people somehow acquire osmotically an understanding of the balance of our constitution, the conventions that secure it and – yes – the boundaries.

And yet, this is something that as a society we devote little or no effort to. Despite the fact that new legal practitioners receive ethics training as part of their preparation for practice, for those entering public life there is no such guidance or investment at all. There should be.

And so, with a general election due in the next 18 months, preparations should be made to ensure that Members of the next Parliament and the people they work alongside, are given the assistance and information they require. As the President of the Supreme Court noted earlier this month, and I agree, maintaining the rule of law is a joint responsibility of Parliament and the courts. Far from being a contest for power between the two, we have a shared commitment and we should support each other in delivering it.

And in that spirit we must work together to support the parliamentarians of the future. Precisely how that support is framed will be a matter for discussion and careful thought. But it shouldn’t be put off.

Finally this. I know there are real pressures in the system. I have referred to them already. I know that despite the Magistrates’ Court snapping back fast, the caseload in the Crown Court is high.

That is in part a function of the fact that we didn’t abandon jury trials, even when some suggested we should. That was manifestly the right decision. Because jury trials remain the lamp of our liberties, and the ultimate guarantors of fair trials which enjoy the public’s confidence. But we have to recognise that this had a consequence, and the sheer volume now is at least in part the price we pay for principle.

We will do all we can to help. We have removed the cap on sitting days for two years in a row, ensuring the Crown Court can sit at maximum capacity. We have passed the PCSC Act so that remote hearings can continue, where appropriate. 24 Nightingale courtrooms have been extended beyond March 2023 to provide additional capacity. We expect criminal legal aid spending will increase by approximately £141m per year in a steady state.

We are recruiting up to 1,000 judges across jurisdictions. And we have raised the statutory mandatory retirement age to 75 for judicial office holders, estimated to retain an additional 400 judges and tribunal members.

But I am acutely conscious that it is you and the practitioners that you see in your courts and tribunals that will do more than anyone else to bear down on these volumes, and do so in a way that delivers justice.

So I want to thank you for what you have done, but all that you will do. It is not easy I realise.

We use the adjective ‘world-beating’ sparingly these days. But excessive diffidence is to be avoided too. It is entirely reasonable to point out that we have a judiciary that rightly enjoys enormous respect globally – and not just for the quality of its dance moves. In terms of sheer intellectual horsepower and fundamental fairness it stands out.

And it is underpinned by unswerving professionalism. To serve in our courts, as judge or practitioner, is to follow a vocation – to know that you are part of something extraordinarily precious, something far more important than any one of us. And it means all of us, whether judge, practitioner or Lord Chancellor are united by a common desire to serve, and leave the system of justice in our country stronger for our having been here. That is what you might call, my ‘overriding objective’.

Thank you for your attention. Let me close by offering a toast to our hosts – to the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress.

Thank you.