Editor of The Muslim News, Ahmed J Versi interviewing Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. (Photo: Heba Mohammed Yusuf/The Muslim News)
By Ahmed J Versi
Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has defended controversial changes to the legal aid system that could see a dramatic reduction in the quality of choice and access to justice in Britain.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Muslim News, Grayling denied that the setting up of secret courts was to hide evidence, admitted that the Government wanted to change the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights and insisted shortening the time for judicial reviews was aimed to prevent their misuse. He also spoke extensively about Muslim issues.
The Government has already sliced £320 million out of the annual civil legal aid budget and plans are to save a further £220m from the budget for criminal legal aid.
“The challenge that we’ve got is that our legal aid system is by far the most expensive we’ve got in the developed world. It’s three or four times more expensive than other European countries and even much more expensive that other legal systems in the UK,” the Justice Secretary said.
“Given the huge financial challenges we face, it is always going to be necessary to bring the costs down. What we’ve tried to do is to ensure the basic principles are left in place,” he said, insisting that the Government would to ensure that “legal aid is there for people when there is a clear need for it.”
“But what we can’t do is provide legal aid for every circumstances in which someone goes to court. Indeed, I would argue that in some cases I mean, up to now for example, there has been provision of legal aid in divorce cases that’s not now available. That will not now be available but what we’ll be looking to do is to get some mediation.”
Talking about courts, Grayling said that there were many misunderstandings in the country as a whole about Shari’ah councils. “One of the things I find worrying is the way in which some far right groups use viral emails to put round completely spurious claims about what’s going on in our society. Shari’ah is one example of that.”
“My message is more to them than anyone else and it is ‘can you please stop worrying about spurious messages coming round that have come from questionable places making claims that are simply not right’ and my point about Shari’ah law is that to those messages don’t be ridiculous, it’s not happening, it’s not going to happen. This is propaganda from the far right which is utterly unacceptable.”
“To me what Shari’ah councils do is they provide a mediation service for the Muslim community. They have counterparts in other faiths. We are entirely supportive of procedures where resolutions can be reached to disputes informally,” he said. “Those processes don’t replace the court, they don’t replace legal process, but if a situation can be resolved without it going to court that’s the advantage on everyone.”
Questioned about creating secret courts, the Lord Chancellor denied that it could result in people being imprisoned without knowing what they have been convicted for. It was more about protecting the security services and preventing the Government from having to pay compensation.
“I don’t think we’d get to a situation where somebody could face imprisonment and have no way of knowing the charges against them.
“I think there’s a big difference between that and somebody’s ability to sue the British Government for lots of compensation, with the British Government having no means of defending themselves.”
“It’s not about hiding the evidence,” he insisted. “What we’ve done is create a vehicle so that the court can see the other side of the argument. It’s still able to reach a view that somebody is being badly treated and should receive compensation but what this does is enables the court to see both sides of the argument.”
“It’s absolutely not our intention to create an environment where justice is no longer done,” he told The Muslim News.
Tackled on controversial proposal to shorten the time limit to bring a judicial review, Grayling argued that the process was being misused. “It’s being used for campaigning purposes, PR purposes and sometimes it’s a delaying tactic,” he insisted, adding that the Government was not trying to stop the judicial review.
He stopped short of saying that the Conservatives wanted to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, but suggested fundamental change was needed following a series of high-profile rulings.
“The original Convention of Human Rights is a really important statement of principle for modern democratic nation. It was designed and written at a time when Stalin was in power in Russia. People were being sent to labour camps without trial. It says about basic things like a right not to be tortured, a right to a fair trial and it was really about ensuring that people had a right to defend themselves and that political prisoners wouldn’t disappear into oblivion.”
“It has changed very dramatically over 50-60 years to a point where I think the court is now operating in areas that nobody ever intended it to,” the Justice Secretary argued.
“My view and the Party’s view is that we need to curtail it in the United Kingdom and that we should not undermine the absolute rights in the convention but some of the ways in which the other rights are being interpreted are wrong. And we want to change the legal framework for that. We’re not ruling any option in or out at the moment but we are looking at the detail on how to do that.”
During his interview, Grayling was also challenged about why he rejected that the post of Chaplain General in prisons should be available to all faiths, but retained only by an Anglican minister.
“I felt that the Church of England has an established position in this country. It has a unique position amongst faiths that it is an Established Church. Whether that’s right or wrong is a separate question but my view is that as long as there is an Established Church then the Chaplain General’s role should sit with the Established Church. That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be support for all faiths within the chaplaincy, there should be.”
“I’m absolutely not in favour of treating different faiths differently, but I think because of the Established Church the Chaplain General post should be held by the Church of England but that prison’s team should include people from major faiths.”
Questioned further about the loss of trust between Muslim prisoners and prison staff, discrimination against Muslim prisoners, Muslim prisoners not allowed to attend Friday prayers, Grayling emphasised that he does “not tolerate discrimination.” More broadly, one of the things to change was “the narrative around the way people see the Muslim faith.”
He said it was “completely unfair” about Muslims being perceived through the prism of terrorism. “All my experience in the Muslim community in Britain is that it’s full of decent, hardworking people trying to get on in life, trying to get a job done, and these are people who I want to be on the same side as and I want my party to be on the same side as. Stories of us treating Muslims differently are very unfair. We should treat criminals differently; we should treat terrorist suspects differently whether they come from Northern Ireland or whether they come from another part of our community.”
When criticised about the failure of the prison service to recruit using the Muslim media for staff, Grayling said, “I want to see more Muslim prison staff,” and added that he “would look into it.”
He rejected fears that plans to privatise the probation service will be a threat to public safety as it may not work the same way as if it was still controlled by the Government but be more interested in making money than caring for offenders. “I want to see more charitable organisations and more voluntary sector organisations coming in to work with the private sector and the public sector in tackling the problem of reoffending. By broadening the groups and by allowing voluntary sector organisations to come forward we will actually create a much better vehicle.”
The way the system is designed, he said, would be to have a specialist public probation service that looks after the highest risk offenders. “It is the lower and medium risk offenders in which support will be contracted out to organisations which I expect to be a mix of private and voluntary.”
“It’s not about saving money in its own right, it is about cutting down costs so I can reinvest those savings and about providing support to prisoners who go to jail for less than 12 months who, at the moment, get no support at all when they leave. So it’s actually about bringing more people into the system, making the system better able to support a bigger number of people.”
“I think we’ll get a better set of opportunities to support young Muslim men. I want to stop them from reoffending. This is a much better way of getting some of the really good charities get involved in the community into practically being involved in that work.”
The Lord Chancellor disclosed that there were plans to hold a series of speed dating sessions between voluntary sector organisations and other partners. “There are some brilliant charities within the Muslim world and we want to try and encourage young people to get involved in politics and get great experiences with young people working in the Muslim community and kind of experience maybe brought them into this.”
He said that he personally regarded the Muslim community as making a really important contribution to Britain and praised The Muslim News Awards for Excellence event as giving “a real insight into the community.” In particular, he said it can help “build a much more international focus for the UK at a time the Government was looking to spread its wings all around the world.”
He voiced various reasons to support the community and said he wanted to help tackle some of the issues, including creating “a more positive image in a way that when I was growing up security issues in relation to Northern Ireland actually had a negative reputation of the Irish as a whole which was not a good thing.” The Muslim community is an “important part of this country and it does really important things for our country and that we should be the champions of it.”