Strip the Lord Chancellor of all but his decorative role, urges Michael Mansfield QC
WHEN Derry Irvine, our entertaining Lord Chancellor, compared himself to Cardinal Wolsey, he did not have in mind the following passage in G R Elton's standard work England Under the Tudors: "His greatest weakness lay in the realm of finance. He was a bad financier because he could neither make do with existing revenue nor effectively increase it. He had little understanding of economic facts."

Our Lord Chancellor claims his comparison was jocular, to which I say, "Many a true word..." Since his appointment in May 1997, Lord Irvine has followed closely in the Cardinal's footsteps. He announced, without prior consultation, a severe package of civil legal aid cuts in October 1997, a proposal which has more to do with benefiting the insurance industry than the ordinary litigant. His apartment, which a spokesperson recently described with peerless understatement as "not a big place", is being refurbished at a cost of pounds 650,000, with 87 works of art from the National Gallery of Scotland thrown in. Now, with his idea for a policy think-tank costing pounds 2.5m, expensive deliberation is to be added to costly decor.

This catalogue of serious misjudgements by the Lord Chancellor provides a timely opportunity for a radical reappraisal of the office itself. The Labour Party's commitment to reform of the House of Lords must embrace this post, which should be stripped of its primary role and powers and left as a purely titular, ceremonial and historical remnant.

The various functions should be reassessed according to the criteria of democratic accountability, openness and ready access, exposition of legal welfare, and effective remedies. Many of the areas currently undertaken by the Lord Chancellor could be supervised by a Minister of Justice. In this way we might end the secrecy surrounding the appointment of the judiciary and senior lawyers or silks. By now, we should have a separate and clearly defined career structure for professional judges, open to application from a broad section of the community via a judicial college of the kind incorporated in several continental jurisdictions. Other appointments, including obviously, that of Lord Chancellor, are susceptible to the charge of preferment and one of Lord Irvine's appointments is already being challenged in the courts on sex-discrimination grounds. A judicial appointment board within the proposed Ministry of Justice could be given this task.

Funding must be overhauled. It should be combined with a legal services commission, again supervised by the Ministry, within which are both lawyers and non-lawyers. Hopefully, this would reassure the public that money was not being misspent either on lawyers or on frivolous cases. There is little point in raising the profile of citizens' rights, which the last Government did with the Citizens Charter and this Government is doing in the Human Rights Bill, unless there is effective access to the courts and an enforcement of those rights that is affordable by the ordinary litigant. There are still large areas of either no or inadequate resourcing. People who wish to challenge decisions in tribunals concerned with the basic, everyday problems of housing, employment, discrimination and immigration often find themselves with, at best, legal representation given pro bono, at worst with no legal representation at all. The same applies to inquests, of which there is a notorious recent example in the form of the Hillsborough victims. There are many others. Inquests often give rise to important issues of public health and safety, and where there are deaths in custody, provide one of the only ways of endeavouring to uncover the truth.

On top of this comes judicial review, whereby the decisions of authorities can be examined if, for example, they transgress the rules of natural justice. Once again, to challenge these decisions is too expensive a prospect for the average citizen. Instead of converting legal representation and legal access into some kind of National Lottery in which there is no fee if you do not win and, if you do win, it is seriously eroded by insurance premiums, we should be considering the establishment of a national legal service.

The idea of a national legal service supervised by a Ministry of Justice has been strongly advocated by Austin Mitchell and Tony Benn over the past two or three years. Part of this project would involve an immediate development of neighbourhood law centres which over the past 15 to 20 years have struggled to survive, as Tory and Labour authorities alike cut back, merge or close them. At this moment, two out of the three law centres in Lambeth are threatened with closure. To provide adequate advice and support we need at least one neighbourhood law centre for every 50,000 of the population. On this basis, there should be something like 1,150 centres nationwide. At present there are barely 53.

For many years now, the Law Commission has regularly researched areas of law that require clarification or reform. The trouble is that, however well researched or well argued their working papers are, the results of their labours have found successive governments unreceptive. The commission needs to be given a much more central role and to become a key part of the think-tank contemplated by Lord Irvine.

A Ministry of Justice would look after the administration of the courts as well as the appointment of the judiciary and, if there was a need for further control and accountability, a parliamentary select committee could be put in place. It might also have within its remit supervision of the Directorship of Public Prosecutions. There has been mounting disquiet about decision-making and resourcing levels. A Ministry of Justice would introduce a much-needed element of public accountability and openness.

If these recommendations were to be taken up, the Lord Chancellor would be left with only a couple of functions beyond interior decoration. The first is Keeper of the Queen's Conscience. In the light of various Royal activities over the last decade that could be quite time-consuming. The second is sitting on the Wool Sack. Whatever is left of the House of Lords, assuming the Labour government does not abolish it altogether, the Lord Chancellor's traditional role is to keep various aristocratic excesses in check. That should fill in his time.