‘Time for a fresh start’ – legal profession calls for reset of flagging justice system after Raab quits as Lord Chancellor

Former criminal barrister Alex Chalk KC takes reins after bullying allegations against predecessor are upheld

Dominic Raab

Lawyers’ representative bodies have called for the UK justice system to undergo a ‘fresh start’ on the appointment of former criminal barrister Alex Chalk KC as the new justice secretary and Lord Chancellor after a bullying inquiry led to the resignation of his predecessor, Dominic Raab. 

Raab’s reluctant departure on Friday was prompted by an independent review of his conduct by Adam Tolley KC, of Fountain Court Chambers, which found that he had acted in an “intimidating” and “insulting” way to Ministry of Justice (MoJ) civil servants and undermined and humiliated a senior civil servant while foreign secretary.

This has paved the way for Chalk, a former solicitor general, to return to the Ministry of Justice in the top job from the Ministry of Defence, where he was a minister overseeing procurement.

"It is time for a fresh start,” said Bar Council chair Nick Vineall KC. “Court backlogs continue to hinder timely access to justice for thousands and cause misery for all those working in the justice system. At the same time, anti-lawyer rhetoric undermines public confidence and adherence to the rule of law."

Law Society president Lubna Shuja added: “The justice system is facing worsening backlogs, legal aid on the point of collapse, crumbling courts and a shortage of judges and court staff. The new justice secretary must get a grip on the crisis as a matter of urgency.”

Chalk, a barrister who prosecuted serious crime while in practice, served as the government's deputy chief legal adviser in the role of solicitor general from September 2021 to July 2022, when his was among the first of a wave of ministerial resignations that toppled Boris Johnson’s administration.

Chalk is the eighth justice secretary since 2016, with Raab having held the position twice. 

His former MOJ colleague, Lord Wolfson KC, described him as "a firm defender of the rule of law, is widely respected, and brings his experience as a Law Officer to the role".

Former Law Society president David Greene said: "He is a dedicated lawyer knowing well, as a former practitioner, the issues over legal aid and the problems with the justice process. Unlike his predecessor, I think he will think it an honour to be appointed Lord Chancellor."

The distinguished legal journalist, Joshua Rosenberg KC (Hon), assessing Raab's record as a justice minister, noted: "That Raab lasted as long as he did, while remaining deputy prime minister, demonstrates the dearth of talent among those appointed to high public office." 

While Tolley did not uphold a group complaint by MOJ staff, arguing Raab’s behaviour was "abrasive" but not "abusive" in this instance, the barrister did uphold two of the eight complaints he investigated.

Tolley's report concluded Raab acted, in one instance, in a way that was "intimidating in the sense of unreasonably and persistently aggressive" and "insulting" by criticizing the quality of work done by civil servants.

He maintained that “an abuse or misuse of power” was involved “in a way that undermines or humiliates”. He also cited an “unwarranted punitive element" which “was experienced as undermining or humiliating by the affected individual”.

Tolley noted: "I find that [Raab] did not intend by the conduct described to upset or humiliate. He was typically so focused on what he regarded as his desired outcome and how – as he saw it - to achieve that outcome effectively that he did not always consider the impact of his approach at the level of the individual affected by it."

While accepting Raab was "committed to acting professionally and focusing on the job", Tolley added that he felt Raab had "also been left with a sense (as he put it) of having been wronged" and noted there was "to that extent a risk of repetition, albeit one whose extent is difficult to assess".

To Raab's credit, Tolley noted, once informed of the complaints, there "was little or no valid ground for criticism", with even his complainants reporting if Raab "had behaved previously as he has more recently behaved, there would have been no valid grounds for complaint".

Raab complained that the threshold for bullying in the report was set at "a low bar" and complained in media statements about "activist civil servants" trying to block his policy agenda. 

Sir Nick Macpherson, the former permanent secretary to the Treasury, noted on Twitter that Antonia Romeo, his equivalent at the MOJ, was neither an "activist" nor a natural troublemaker, adding, “If she thought things were bad, they almost certainly were”.

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