On May 7th residents of the UK headed to polling stations across the country to cast their vote for who they wanted to run the country for the next five years.
Despite opinion polls leading up to the election suggesting that no party would come out as a clear winner, the Conservatives won the race with a slim., but sure majority of the vote – in a result that surprised many. To find out what a Conservative government will mean for the future of the country and the regulatory changes it is likely to bring, Lawyer Monthly speaks to Tracy Head.
Were you surprised by the slim majority that took the Conservatives to victory? Why?
Yes. The polls had clearly predicted the Conservatives would not win a majority. Based on seat projections from polling data, it also seemed unlikely they would be able to form a functional coalition or minority government. As we now all know, the polls were wrong. Some of this can be attributed to polling methodologies struggling to adapt to multi-party politics.
It is fair to say that there are a number of strange electoral findings from this election. Labour lost seats while gaining votes - most of these votes bolstered their majorities in safe seats. UKIP and the Green Party took votes from the Lib Dems in the South West - meaning the Conservatives were able to win there with roughly the same vote share as 2010. Additionally, on a net basis, the Labour Party won only one more seat in England than 2010. Perhaps most surprising of all, the incumbent Conservatives won more votes and seats than in 2010, which almost never happens.
With Labour losing all but one seat in traditionally safe Scotland, an unexpectedly severe collapse for the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives winning almost all of the English marginal; a Conservative majority was, in the end, possible.
Speculation is now rife about the effects that a Conservative government will have on the country. What will be the main effects on the legal system in your opinion?
A continued drive for achieving greater efficiencies in the system is likely to be at the front and centre of change. This should go hand in hand with seeking out and removing pointless costs from the system, whilst maintaining access to justice for all parties.
The arrival of Michael Gove as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice came as a surprise. He will want to leave his mark. At the top of his in-tray are two key issues – scrapping the Human Rights Act and cost cutting.
A British Bill of Rights will be a point of contention and will need careful handling. His approach to cost cutting at the Ministry of Justice waits to be seen and may well include further austerity measures on the courts. Details will begin to emerge with the Queen’s Speech due to take place later this month (27 May). Some commentators are confident that Gove will take a more cautious approach and seek to build upon the platform of reform started by Grayling. Others are expecting a more radical and bullish stance.
From the claimant perspective, we would expect to see calls to extend payment schemes, like the one established for diffuse mesothelioma, to other industrial injuries. The rise in court fees is also likely to remain an access to justice issue (together with any other perceived injustice of the Jackson reforms which claimant personal injury lawyers hoped would be more readily addressed by a Labour-led majority). From the perspective of the insurance industry, the specific areas that are likely to remain priority areas for the new administration to tackle include, for example, young driver safety and cracking down on the behaviour of claims management companies.
Overall, the hope must remain that the legislative (and regulatory) environment which ensues is one that allows the legal system, and those industries which are dependent on it, to become globally competitive, cost-effective and efficient. Time will tell.
In the election campaign, David Cameron said he would pass a law to stop any tax increases. Do you think this will happen and how complex do you think it will prove?
This is likely to be announced either in the Queen’s Speech, on 27 May, or Budget, on 8 July 2015. The misleading polling may have led the Conservatives to promise things they might have hoped to remove in coalition negotiations. The arguably political move of pledging legislation to bar headline tax increases in this Parliament will, however, prove difficult to roll back on as the Conservatives will want to maintain the electorate’s trust.
The promise not to increase income tax, national insurance or VAT, may prove a complex issue for the Government to now tackle, given the backdrop of having to make severe cuts this Parliament, including £12bn in welfare cuts. To meet Chancellor George Osborne’s fiscal targets, the Institute for Fiscal studies expects cuts of around 18% to central government departments, excluding those whose budgets have been ring-fenced.
How do you think the government should prioritise their new legislation? Why?
We expect the Government will prioritise manifesto commitments. The first 100 days of this Government offers an opportunity to show the difference between a Conservative majority and a coalition, both in a legislative and tonal sense. Conservatives will be keen to communicate to voters the positives of their Government, in order to start this Parliament on the right foot. As a result, the Government may well prioritise the removal of the Human Rights Act, an EU Referendum and spending cuts; as well as the other promises made before the Election including new bills on education, housing and childcare. Necessity might also dictate legislation on the devolution package for Scotland, though this could be subject to ongoing negotiations.
With regard to a new civil justice agenda (including a British Bill of Rights), it is vital for the Government to properly explore the issues at stake, take soundings from those with expertise and experience and take the time to draft the legislation so that the detail is fit for purpose. Rushing legislation risks unintended consequences.
The last term saw extensive civil justice reform. There is, therefore, a balancing act for this Government to appreciate from the outset – allowing those changes already implemented time to bed in whilst continuing to drive efficiency and fairness into the civil justice system. Improving the court experience is one area that is likely to continue, off the back of the on-going modernisation of the court system. Whether the controversial hike in court fees to help fund this will prompt new legislation, waits to be seen.
Further reform in the motor arena is likely, including perhaps with regard to young driver safety reforms – something which is close to the heart of the Association British Association. Whether we see an increase in the small claims track is an unknown and is not something we would advocate at this stage due to the risk of driving more costs back into the system. An extension of fixed recoverable costs may be on the agenda – including for other lower value personal injury claims such as industrial deafness. In the alternative, we might see the extension to claims valued above £25,000.
We might also see new measures to improve the claims handling process – be it generally, or specific to types of claim (as already seen for mesothelioma claims). We expect to see ongoing and additional thinking around alternative dispute resolution, which may include progressing the Susskind-led Civil Justice Council review of Online Dispute Resolution form claims up to £25,000.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The next five years will be interesting. An unanticipated Conservative majority will now have to implement policy without the flexibility offered by coalition. Additionally, David Cameron’s majority is smaller than it was in coalition and he may find rebellious Conservative MPs more difficult to deal with than the Liberal Democrats. Add to that internal disagreements on the party’s position on the EU, and we could see the Government struggle to pass simple legislation. Cameron is likely to face many of the same challenges Sir John Major did when he was Prime Minister. If he can keep the party intact as it campaigns around an EU referendum, he will have done very well indeed.