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An advocate for the consumer

Paul Boateng, Labour's legal affairs spokesman, says he will take on lawyers for the sake of greater access to justice. But can he deliver? Stephen Ward met him
Paul Boateng's introduction to the law was to play with his father's wig in his cot. "Much to his chagrin, and I wear his wig to this day," he says.

Many things about the English legal system need changing, but wigs are not one of them, he believes. "I'm hostile to pomposity, not pomp. I'm hostile to arrogance. I'm hostile to anything that puts a barrier between the delivery of a publicly funded service and the people who pay for it."

Many in the profession will find Mr Boateng's traditionalism, symbolised by the wig, to be reassuring. They will note that Labour's proposals for greater access to justice, cheaper courts, quicker trials and more representative judges are all on the face of it similar to the aims of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay. Alternative dispute resolution has a key part in both parties' plans to provide more justice for less cash.

But according to Mr Boateng, Labour's spokesman on legal affairs, there is a crucial difference: the motive. He sees the Conservatives' imperative as cost-saving, while his is social justice. (Although he, too, insists that there will be no extra money spent on the legal services; better service will come from efficiency.)

He would go farther than the Conservatives, he says, by implementing Law Commission recommendations more quickly and regularly, and granting access to the Human Rights convention through British courts, not via Strasbourg years later.

The alarmed owner of the wig in the cradle, Mr Boateng senior, was a barrister before Mr Boateng junior was born. The young Boateng trained as a solicitor before switching to the Bar. The Labour front bench has considerable legal expertise, too, not least from its leader, Tony Blair. It apparently intends to shake up solicitors and barristers, with or without their consent.

"We've asked the professions some very challenging questions and we expect them to be answered. If they choose to reply in an anodyne way, then their case will go by default," Mr Boateng says.

"We are absolutely committed to reducing cost and delay in access to legal services, and we do not intend to allow any vested interest on the part of the professions to get in the way of that." He has consulted with them already, and so far has been unconvinced by the case for denying direct access to barristers. "I look forward to seeing how the Bar justifies that in the public interest, and why their main client, who is the Government, should be expected to pay for that denial of direct access.

"I look forward to solicitors helping us come to terms with how it is so many of the most successful solicitors' firms do no legal aid work whatsoever." On the question of wigs, Mr Boateng is furious that solicitors are not allowed to wear wigs when they appear as advocates in Crown Court. He wants equal status between professions, and that is a symbol of a two- tiered heirarchy.

Labour wants judges, up to and including Law Lords, to be appointed and monitored by a commission, rather than by the Lord Chancellor on confidential advice. Mr Boateng sees the current judiciary as unrepresentative: too male, too old, too establishment, and uncontrolled. He has little time for the counter-argument put again last week by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, that there is a small pool of potential judges, and no choice, and that judges do not need to be representative any more than do brain surgeons.

Nor does he believe that the Lord Chancellor is already looking beyond barristers. He says: "We have one academic on the High Court bench, we have one solicitor. I don't regard that as satisfactory. I think we need to draw from a much wider group of people than we currently do. We need to be much more open and transparent in the processes of application and selection, and I think the public agrees with that. We need to have a system that is very much at arm's length from a political figure. I really don't believe it appropriate for a senior politician to have a hands-on approach to the selection of the judiciary."

Paul Boateng recounts a bit of advice from his late leader, another lawyer, John Smith: "Never address the Commons as if it's a court, never address a court as if it's the Commons."

In an interview he has a third style of address, like Blair himself. Policy is still out to consultation, and he tends to answer specifics with generalities. Labour's consultation paper, Access to Justice, is more of a generality than a policy document, and you feel the policy due to be finalised at the October party conference this year will be hedged with qualifications until after polling day.

A year ago Mr Boateng was personally committed to a Ministry of Justice, with a Commons minister in the Cabinet, and the Lord Chancellor downgraded. He said as recently as June 1994: "His present ministerial role is not compatible with either the headship of the judiciary or membership of the House Of Lords. Labour will take executive functions away from the Lord Chancellor and give them to a Ministry of Justice headed by an MP and subject to the scrutiny of a ... Commons select commitee."

Ask him about the Lord Chancellor's planned role now, and although he still derides John Taylor, the Lord Chancellor's spokesman in the Commons as a "bag-carrier", his answer is: "We have deliberately avoided in this [consultation] paper coming forward with a blueprint for a wholesale constitutional reform of the Lord Chancellor. That isn't what it's about. What the public is crying out for in the field of justice and legal affairs is not wholesale constitutional reform at this time. They want to see a new ethos, they want to see a new focus of government in terms of legal services, and they want to see a change of culture in which legal services are delivered.

"We are not really going to get hung up on the issue of the Lord Chancellor, whether or not he should be in the Cabinet, or anything like that, or whether or not he should continue to be a presiding officer over the House of Lords on one hand, and the senior judge in the other, and the senior minister with responsibility for the administration of justice and legal affairs. What we are concerned about is to deal with the vacuum of accountability that exists so far as the Commons is concerned, to upgrade the issue of accountability, to make him or her accountable to the Commons, to enhance accountability with a select committee, to move quickly on the issues I've outlined with a consumer focus.

"That's our priority. It's a practical package without getting hung up on the constitution. We have a very considerable constitutional agenda anyway. There's always a danger of constitutional overload."

Time, of course, will tell whether the Labour Party in power will be able to press through reforms or whether it will be reduced to the political equivalent of playing with wigs.