So long, Ken, noble scourge of imaginary cats [updated – and hello Mr Grayling]

4 September 2012 by

Updated | As has been widely reported, Ken Clarke has left his post as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor following a cabinet reshuffle.

The former-Justice Secretary has had an eventful time in his two years and three months in post. He has overseen enormous cuts to legal aid for which some will never forgive him, introduced a bill which will increase secret trials in the civil justice system, got into trouble over his comments on rape and ushered in a significant reform programme at the European Court of Human Rights.

But he will probably best be remembered, certainly by this blog, for an interview he gave following a speech by Home Secretary Theresa May at the Conservative Party Conference. You may remember it. It was about a cat. Which was apparently (but not really) responsible for a court’s failure to deport a man from the UK. Immediately following the speech, Ken Clarke told the Nottingham Post what he thought about May’s comments:

I sat and listened to Theresa’s speech and I’ll have to be very polite to Theresa when I meet her, but in my opinion she should really address her researchers and advisers very severely for assuring her that a complete nonsense example in her speech was true.”

He added: “I’m not going to stand there and say in my private opinion this is a terrible thing and we ought to get rid of the Human Rights Act.”

Mr Clarke said that the cat had nothing to do with allowing the individual mentioned in Ms May’s speech to remain in the UK.

He disagreed with Ms May’s criticism of the Human Rights Act, claiming it was “essential to a modern democracy” and that it would be “unwise” for the party to pledge its repeal.

“It’s not only the judges that all get furious when the Home Secretary makes a parody of a court judgement, our commission who are helping us form our view on this are not going to be entertained by laughable child-like examples being given,” said Mr Clarke.

“We have a policy and in my old-fashioned way when you serve in a Government you express a collective policy of the Government, you don’t go round telling everyone your personal opinion is different.”

Will Clarke’s successor be as outspoken as he was? More importantly, will there be anyone left in the major crime and justice posts to call out “complete nonsense” and “laughable child-like examples” of human rights gone wrong? Sadly, it seems unlikely. For his flaws, at least Clarke seemed to ‘get’ the wider issues around human rights, and called out ideological posturing when he saw it.

So long Ken. On balance, we will miss you.

UpdateChris Grayling is the new Justice Secretary. The best article I have read so far on his appointment is by Joshua Rozenberg, who worries that the first non-lawyer as Lord Chancellor may leave the door open for “mischief”.

I have searched in vain for any previous statements about the Human Rights Act by Mr Grayling, who is thought of as more right wing than Mr Clarke. From a legal standpoint, he did express some controversial views about a case involving Christian B&B owners who refused to give a double room to a gay couple. That case is currently being appealed to the Supreme Court. I expect some of the first questions asked of him may be in relation to that case and his current views.

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  1. Britain has long forgotten the meaning of Justice. Successive politicians trot into their roles, and are soon observed trotting out; to be replaced by yet more trotters up the steps of 10 Downing Street. What a waste of shoe leather.

  2. James Wilson says:

    A friend pointed out that the press release about Clarke made no mention of the fact that he was Lord Chancellor as well as Justice Secretary. The post of LC was, of course, one of Mr Blair’s botched attempts at constitutional reform, since he tried to abolish it but failed. We were then left with the holder of the office being a Mr, not a Lord (he also lost the grace and favour home and was paid a lower salary, though I doubt much public sympathy was forthcoming). Has Mr Cameron succeeded where Mr Blair failed? Or was it just overlooked …

  3. ObiterJ says:
  4. ObiterJ says:

    Clarke deserves credit for standing up for judicial independence when some of his Ministerial colleagues made certain remarks. Judicial independence is a concept which existed in practice for many years though not always in our history. It was not properly recognised in statute law until the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. (Remember the “concordat” when Lord Woolf was LCJ?). Those who are steeped in the law recognise and value this concept. I am not so sure that others necessarily do so. The appointment of Mr Grayling may place some additional pressure on the Lord Chief Justice, the senior judges generally and the legal profession to stand up and be counted for their independence from the executive. Our country must never become a place where Ministerial diktat determines the outcome of cases in the courts.

  5. it will be something we will regret in a serious way ken may not have been perfect but at least he understood the need for promoting rehabilitation in prisons, he was from a legal background what we have in Chris Grayling is the equivelant of a burger flipper in Mc Donalds being given the post of justice secretary IT WILL NOT END WELL

  6. Mike says:


  7. ObiterJ says:

    The “cat” episode was a bit of entertainment. May merely wanted to ridicule the Human Rights Act in front of the party faithful. The story was grist to her mill.

    Clarke was pro the European Convention but clearly wished to somehow rein in what he (and others in government) saw as the excesses of Strasbourg – particularly where the excesses trimmed ministerial freedom / executive action. The Brighton Conference decisions will be working themselves through over the next few years.

    Clarke has presided over the removal of civil legal aid from many areas where vulnerable people need help. He should not be readily forgiven for this since he embraced the policy enthusiastically and, when the coalition was formed, was among the first – if not the first – to present his budget cut plans to the Treasury. Of course, his successor will very likely be blamed for the cuts as they kick in next year and as people find their access to justice limited.

    Clarke has also removed much that was of value in local justice. This has been done by the closure of many magistrates’ courts and some county courts. Nobody doubts that some needed to go but, as usual, the axe swung too quickly and too far.

    Furthermore, who actually welcomes his Justice and Security Bill?

    In my view, holding office as Sec. of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor was one office too many for Ken Clarke. I will not miss his policies but I am not holding my breath for anyone better to come along.

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