Liz Truss should be stripped of Lord Chancellor role, Cabinet ministers urge Theresa May

Kate McCann
Liz Truss, the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor - © 2017 Bloomberg Finance LP

Theresa May is being urged by Cabinet Ministers to strip Liz Truss of her role as Lord Chancellor and break up the Ministry of Justice amid concerns the department is "not fit for purpose".

Senior Government sources have told The Daily Telegraph that a series of embarrassing mistakes have prompted "concerns at the very top that a major overhaul is needed" which could involve removing responsibility from the MoJ. 

In an attack on Ms Truss, colleagues highlighted a number of high-profile errors over the last couple of months including the justice secretary's apparent refusal to defend high court judges after they came under attack over the Brexit court case. 

Her errors have led to criticism from the most senior members of the judiciary.

Ms Truss Credit: Getty

The President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, warned that Ms Truss had failed in her duty as the Lord Chancellor to stand up for the judiciary, prompting claims of a conflict of interest with her other job as secretary of state.

Ms Truss holds both offices as a result of changes initiated by Tony Blair and brought in in 2007 which removed the Lord Chancellor role from a Judge and made it into a political appointment. 

Although the office has since lost much of its previous responsibility the holder is still obligated to oversee the way the law of the land is applied across Government and speak up for the judiciary.

Splitting the roles would be seen as a significant snub to Ms Truss, amid reports that No 10 has become increasingly aware of problems in the department over the last few months.

Lord Neuberger Credit: Supreme Court

A Cabinet source said the Justice Secretary had raised eyebrows for her handling of a number of incidents including prison staffing numbers and confusion over whether rape victims would be allowed to give evidence via video-link.

The error prompted Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas to accuse Ms Truss of "misleading" the public over rape trials and criticise her handling of the coverage of high court judges after the Brexit trial. 

His colleague, the former Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, said Ms Truss’s silence on the Brexit case constituted a “very serious” failing in her legal obligations. “She is in relative terms a very inexperienced politician with no legal experience, who has been silent, and answered to Downing Street when she should have been independent," he added.

The Old Bailey London Credit: Andrew Holt

Speaking of the need to split the roles in order to preserve independence and avoid conflict of interest the Cabinet minister added: "A more traditional separation [of the department] is needed.

"Whether that's a full break-up of the department or just a hiving off of the Lord Chancellor, this is being considered."

A second Government source said: "The majority of backbenchers who are interested in these things - the lawyers and former ministers - and senior lawyers/judges agree the Blair reforms were wrong and the Lord Chancellor should be given to a senior lawyer freed from the tough prisons brief.

“The senior judiciary think the current role is an almost impossible one. It's the 10th anniversary of the MoJ and it isn't a well-functioning department."

The Supreme Court judges Credit: Supreme Court

Amid claims that the Government is preparing to undertake a feasibility study into how the changes could work, senior sources suggested that the Lord Chancellor role should be given to an MP with legal experience. 

A source in the department denied that such a study is taking place last night.

The concerns follow a decision by Mr Blair, the former Labour prime minister, to remove the Lord Chancellor role from a Judge and move it into a Government department, headed by an MP. 

At the time judges feared the change would lead to conflicts of interest between politicians and the judiciary over how the law of the land is applied and complained that the role would not be understood fully by someone not qualified in the legal profession. 

Ms Truss Credit: AFP

A House of Lords committee considered the issue in 2014 and concluded that while peers "recognised concerns that the combination of the office of Lord Chancellor with that of the Secretary of State for Justice could create the risk of a conflict of interest" it did not see it as an insurmountable problem as long as the department was well run.

In 2007, when the responsibility for prisons and probation was moved from the Home Office to the new ministry concerns were also raised about the impact this would have on the role of Lord Chancellor and how the office was upheld. 

Earlier this year Ms Truss issued a statement in which she appeared to acknowledge that setting the discount rate, the level of compensation payment for personal injury claimants, created a conflict of interest in her role as Lord Chancellor. 

Tony Blair made the changes in 2007 Credit: Victoria Jones

In a statement to Parliament she said the new rate, which prompted fears that insurance premiums would rise to cover the cost, was the "only legally acceptable rate" she was able to set. 

Mr Truss added that the process would be reviewed and could be set by an independent body in future in an admission that it may not be fit for the department to do so.

She said: "The Government will review the framework under which I have set the rate today to ensure that it remains fit for purpose in the future. I will bring forward a consultation before Easter that will consider options for reform including: whether the rate should in future be set by an independent body."

The Prime Minister Credit: AP

A Whitehall source said: "A series of blunders - not all of them entirely the minister's fault - have highlighted the deep routed and at times absurd problems and conflicts within the department."

"The department is not fit for purpose and the recent cock ups go deeper than simply weak ministerial oversight.

“Splitting it up is something that is certainly being looked at,” they added.

While the Daily Telegraph understands that Cabinet colleagues are urging the Prime Minister to consider removing the title from Ms Truss, the government last night denied any plans were afoot.

A government spokesman said: “No such plan is under consideration. It isn’t going to happen.”

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