David Gauke named sixth justice secretary in as many years, as critics claim that government does not prioritise justice issues

David Gauke has become the sixth MP to take up the role of justice secretary in as many years, replacing David Lidington after just six months as part of Prime Minister Theresa May’s latest cabinet reshuffle.

Gauke is the first ever solicitor to become justice secretary and his appointment marks the end of a run of four consecutive non-lawyers to hold the post. Before going into politics he was a solicitor at Macfarlanes. He joined the majority of MPs with legal backgrounds in voting to remain in the European Union during the EU referendum.

Critics have argued that the high turnover of justice secretaries is evidence of how low down matters of justice are in the government’s list of priorities, but a spokesperson for the prime minister denied this to The Guardian, saying: “The commitment from the government throughout its time has been into ensuring that rehabilitation is a priority and to break the cycle of reoffending. That has been a continuous theme and I’m sure it will be one that the new secretary of state will continue with.”

Andrew Walker QC, the chair of the Bar, has already urged Gauke to tackle the restrictions placed on access to justice by the government’s legal aid cuts. He said: “We look forward to working with the new lord chancellor to ensure access to justice is available to all, to ensure that the system for securing the administration of justice is resourced properly and functioning effectively, and to achieve fair and sustainable public funding arrangements for advocacy and legal advice. Following significant cutbacks in the provision of legal aid over several years it is vital that the Ministry of Justice completes the thorough review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act to which it is already committed, to ensure that the public interest in the provision of high quality and efficient legal services is addressed. The global reputation of the United Kingdom’s legal services sector, which is underpinned by the independence of our judiciary, are hugely important national assets which must be defended. That is why is it is so important that the court transformation programme is managed well and addresses the needs of all stakeholders.”

But the Labour shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, tweeted that Gauke’s previous record in other government roles could mean that the restoration of a fairer legal aid system is unlikely on his watch: “David Gauke has spent most of the past year defending the Tories’ cruel and callous Universal Credit plan and refusing to fix it when it was clear just how much it would hurt those affected. Very worrying for those who hope government’s legal aid review will help most vulnerable.”

However, Gauke himself reaffirmed the importance of a fair justice system. He said: “Justice is the cornerstone of our democracy and a key part of a fairer society. That is why I am delighted to be taking up the position of secretary of state for justice and the vital role of lord chancellor. I am looking forward to meeting experts and front-line staff to drive the crucial work started by my predecessors, to reform our prisons and courts, uphold the rule of law, and promote our world-leading legal services.”

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